Hammett: “Afraid of a Gun”

Just got back from a run down to Musso & Frank to find that Terry Zobeck logged in with another installment of his series investigating the editorial changes made by Frederic Dannay to Hammett’s short stories — and what better way to kick off another month here on Up and Down These Mean Streets?

Take it, Terry:

“Afraid of a Gun” saw first publication in the March 1, 1924 issue of Black Mask. Hammett had been placing stories with a variety of magazines for just under 18 months. “Afraid of a Gun” marked a baker’s dozen of stories appearing in Black Mask up to this point. A slight story, one of Hammett’s wry short tales told for a comic twist at the end, it wasn’t collected by Fred Dannay until Woman in the Dark in 1951 — it also appears in the currently available edition Nightmare Town from 1999.

The story is not without merit. It has an interesting set-up concerning bootleggers and their conflict with Federal agents; however, nothing much comes of it. Perhaps more interesting is the setting. Hammett returns to the wilds of Montana, this time in the Cabinet Mountains, along the Kootenai River. Owen Sack, a frightened little man, once again is forced to run from his fear of a gun. In recalling similar events over the course of his life, he remembers a time back in a Marsh Market dive in Baltimore when a sailor almost killed him over a dice game. Hammett would have been quite familiar with Marsh Market (another potential stop along the Hammett tour, East Coast edition!).

Dannay made no edits to the story when he reprinted it.

As I’ve looked into documenting Hammett’s pure texts, I can discern no sense or reasoning behind Dannay’s editing of the stories. A minor story like “Afraid of a Gun” goes unscathed, while Op stories like “This King Business”, “Death and Company”, “It”, and — as we’ll see next time — “Night Shots,” are cut willy-nilly.

“Afraid of a Gun” is one of three Hammett stories that I photographed recently at the Library of Congress. Again, I am deeply indebted to Mr. Clark Evans of the LOC’s Rare Book Room for arranging my access to these fragile pulps and for helping me to photograph them.

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