Hammett: “Arson Plus”

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Aha! Terry Zobeck is back, with the latest installment of Zobeck: Series Two. That’s where he looks into the edits made by Frederic Dannay, a.k.a. “Ellery Queen,” to Hammett stories that in recent years have been restored from the Dannay-blue-penciled versions to the “pure text” versions that first saw print in the pulp and slick magazines of the 1920s and 30s. You’ll find the pure text of “Arson Plus” — the first case of the Continental Op — in Crime Stories from Library of America. Just make sure you look for the best edition of that book, the third printing, where Terry helped them finally establish the pure text for  another Op yarn, “This King Business.”

Terry launched Zobeck: Series One in 2011 with his textual detective work on “This King Business,” and since then has gone through each and every Hammett story yet to see a pure text version — you can track down the various posts in the archives. Only one story — “The Nails in Mr. Cayterer” — remains to write Fin on Series One. Terry’s still hunting down a copy of that one. But as many of you know, he’s as determined as any man-hunter found in Hammett’s fiction.

Here’s Terry:


This time out we have the first Continental Op story, “Arson Plus” — Hammett’s seventh published short story and only the third appearing in Black Mask. Up to this point, he still hadn’t committed to being a crime writer. For most of these early stories he used a pseudonym, usually — as with “Arson Plus” — “Peter Collinson.”

“Arson Plus” appeared in the October 1, 1923 issue of Black Mask. Dannay reprinted it in the August 1951 issue of EQMM and collected it that year in Woman in the Dark.

While the story is only middling Op — the plot turns on a point that even in 1923 was pretty much a cliché (one Doyle used 20 years earlier in the Sherlock Holmes story, “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder”) — it has many of the characteristics of a classic Op tale. There are some interesting comments on detective tradecraft, the Op’s good working relationship with law enforcement, and some off-beat crooks.

Pretty much from the start, Hammett has the Op fully formed; all he needed was some better plots and more excitement and he would be hitting his classic stride.

We’ve mentioned before that one way Hammett achieved a sense of realism in his fiction was by referencing actual events or people. In “Arson Plus” he does this at least once and possibly twice; both of which were edited out of the story by Dannay.

Near the end of the story, the Op and his sidekick, sheriff’s deputy McClump, head over to a garage to question the owner, who he finds talking “Hiram Johnson” with two other men. Johnson was the Governor of California from 1911-1917, and a U.S. Senator from 1917-1945. Politically, he was a progressive who ran as Teddy Roosevelt’s vice-president in 1912 when he split from the Republican Party. Apparently, Dannay did not think Johnson was sufficiently well known six years after he left the Senate for EQMM readers to remember him.

The other person is far more interesting. The Op is riding a bus from Sacramento to the outskirts of the county along a bumpy road, “and the bumps, as ‘Rubberhead’ Davis used to say about the flies and mosquitoes in Alberta in summer, ‘is freely plentiful’”. Despite some extensive web surfing, I could not turn up any information about the colorfully-named Mr. Davis or his saying. It’s difficult to believe that he was a product of Hammett’s imagination.

As unfortunate as these deletions are, Dannay commits a third that is far more perplexing. Right as the Op is explaining what led him to the conclusion of the case, Dannay cuts a significant portion of that explanation. This has to be one of the most unfathomable of all Dannay’s edits we’ve discussed so far.

As is usual by now, Dannay’s edits are identified by page number, line number, whether it is from the top or bottom of the page, and the text corrections, with Hammett’s original text that was deleted underlined.  The page numbers refer to Woman in the Dark —– the 1951 first edition digest.


Page no.    Line #     Top/bottom     Text

10                 3                top                Three for a buck Fifteen cents straight

10                 10              top                I get them for two bits each, two of them for a quarter;

10                 12              bottom          Tarr leaned back in his chair, turned his red face to the ceiling, and bellowed

13                 10              top                Tell us the whole thing—everything you remember.”

13                 16              top                I jumped up, and dragged her down the back stairs and out the back door, not thinking of anything but getting her out of there.

15                 9                top                with a check for $14,500 $4,500

15                 10              top                Howard Henderson Handerson

15                 14              top                “Northern California Agent for Krispy Korn KrumbsNorthern California Agent for Instant-Sheen Cleanser Company

15                 16              top                to the traveling salesman

15                 9                bottom          Henderson Handerson

15                 3                bottom          Henderson Handerson

16                 2                top                Henderson Handerson

16                 5                top                that breakfast-cereal Cleanser agency

16                 7                top                We get a car machine [After this short paragraph there should be a break indicating a shift in scene]

16                 8                bottom          our car machine

17                 5                top                if the price, of which neither of them knew anything, wasn’t too high

17                 18              top                our car machine

18                 4                top                “Who’s the night man of the garage? I asked him, after we had listened to the little he had to tell.

18                 15              bottom          “Curly Bbrown hair?”

18                 11              bottom          Henderson       Handerson

18                 7                bottom          Henderson       Handerson

18                 5                bottom          Henderson       Handerson

19                 4                top                Henderson       Handerson

19                 15              bottom          and big hazel eyes that looked black until you got close to them.

19                 8                bottom          business connections—everything. [the em-dash was added by Dannay]

21                 4                top                I admit it is. But it has to be asked.

21                 8                top                addresses, or you can get them from the phone book,

21                 9                bottom          $15,000 $4,000 worth of Liberty bonds

21                 1                bottom          Continental Detective Agency

22                 4                top                GN FOUR FIVE TWO

22                 12              top                The trunks had been delivered to Mrs. Evelyn Trowbridge’s apartment. [Dannay italicized this sentence]

22                 11              bottom          her until they get there. [After this sentence there should not be a break]

23                 15              top                about the weather, or a book that hadn’t interested her particularly.

24                 16              bottom          went on, as I didn’t say anything.

25                 6                top                with every bump in the road.; and the bumps, as “Rubberhead” Davis used to say about the flies and mosquitoes in Alberta in summer, “is freely plentiful.”

25                 15              top                out of it our case against them.

25                 18              top                with stories that matched hers in every detail.

25                 15              bottom          three of ‘em cold, and there’s nothing else to it. Tthey’re as good as convicted. of murder!

26                 13              top                What’s What the hell’s the matter

26                 19              top                car machine

26                 15              bottom          whom he had been talking Hiram Johnson,

26                 3                bottom          socks sox

26                 2                bottom          car machine

27                 5                top                Henderson       Handerson

27                 9                top                We were within ten feet two pavements of the garage when Henderson                     Handerson

27                 11              top                “Oh, Mr. Henderson   Handerson! I cried, trying to keep my voice level and smooth.

27                 16              top                We climbed in aboard

27                 17              top                Henderson       Handerson

27                 17              bottom          Henderson       Handerson

27                 16              bottom          car       machine

27                 11              bottom          Henderson       Handerson

27                 3                bottom          Henderson       Handerson

28                 3                top                “Because he was—Thornburgh.” [Dannay added the em-dash and italicized Thornburgh]

28                 15              top                “Then nobody but the Coonses, Evelyn Trowbridge and Handerson ever saw him except between the tenth of May and the middle of June, when he bought the house. The Coonses and the Trowbridge woman were tied up together in this affair somehow, we knew—so that left only Handerson to consider. Now consider Henderson You had told me

28                 17              top                until after Thornburgh [Dannay italicized after]

28                 18              top                Henderson       Handerson

28                 6                bottom          Henderson       Handerson

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