23.12.09

Dashiell Hammett's The Dain Curse


Who better to write a mystery novel than a former private detective? Dashiell Hammett worked as an operative for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, a job that introduced him to the realities of crime and detective work. Not surprisingly, he was at the forefront of a movement focussed on greater realism in the genre, a movement that changed the face of mystery writing in the 1930s.

Hammett’s novels are set in the ordinary streets, not the upper-class country houses that were typical of mystery novels at the time. In “The Simple Art of Murder,” fellow mystery writer Raymond Chandler wrote,
Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley; it doesn’t have to stay there forever, but it looked like a good idea to get as far as possible from Emily Post’s idea of how a well-bred debutante gnaws a chicken wing. . . . Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare and tropical fish. He put these people down on paper as they were, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes.
The Dain Curse, one of Hammett’s finest novels, has no shortage of violence. Unlike the mysteries of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, and other writers of the Golden Age, murder in this novel does not occur offstage.

The Dain Curse starts benignly enough. The Continental Op (always referred to as “the Op”) is called in to investigate diamonds stolen from Edgar Leggett. Crime soon escalates to murder. Leggat’s daughter Gabrielle believes that she is the bearer of a curse passed down through her mother’s family, the Dains. One by one, people close to her are violently murdered. The Op does not believe in this family curse, and tries to find a serial murderer. The plot is remarkably intricate and the ending a complete surprise. Readers who enjoy fast-moving, plot-driven novels will love this book.

Hammett’s prose is lean, terse, unsentimental. “He had style,” wrote Chandler,
but his audience didn’t know it, because it was in a language not supposed to be capable of such refinements. They thought they were getting a good meaty melodrama written in the kind of lingo they imagined they spoke themselves. It was, in a sense, but it was much more.
Hammett’s spare, hard-boiled style reflects the tough world of the criminals he depicts.

Hammett, Dashiell. The Dain Curse. London: Vintage, 1929.