Hammett: Before Dannay. . .

Our frequent Guest Blogger Terry Zobeck returns with a fresh discovery in his investigation into how Frederic Dannay edited Hammett’s short stories for paperback publication, decades ago. Hey, you jump into the pool, you can dive deeper — and deeper. Take it, Terry: 

For decades we’ve known that many of the Hammett stories reprinted by Fred Dannay were edited, sometimes drastically. And all this time, we’ve thought that Dannay was solely responsible for these edits. But now it appears this is not the case.

In reprinting Hammett’s stories it seems that Dannay may have used the versions that were syndicated by King Features in newspapers across the country in the 1930s. And those edits? Some at least were made by an anonymous editor at King Features before Dannay picked up a blue pencil.

I recently joined a Yahoo group called Pulpscans. One of the members posted scans of four Hammett stories published in the Washington Post in 1937; the stories were:

  • “Pick-Up” (originally titled “The Whosis Kid”), on April 4, 11, and 18
  • “Girl Hunt” (originally titled “Fly Paper”), on May 23
  • “The Judge Laughed Last” (originally titled “The New Racket”), on June 20
  • “Death and Company” on June 27

Two of these stories, “Death and Company” and “The New Racket,” have been the subjects of earlier posts by me, reconstructing their original texts. On the evidence of the 1937 Post scans, it appears that Dannay used the King Features reprint of “Death and Company” for the basis of his text. More than half of the edits I documented are contained in the story as it was published in the Washington Post. So it appears that at least for “Death and Company” it was an anonymous editor at King Features who changed many of Hammett’s words.

That doesn’t let Dannay off the hook, however. He still made many additional changes, including turning Assistant District Attorney McPhee into a “crown” attorney — and changing, for no apparent reason, the real San Francisco streets Turk and Post to the imaginary George and Park Streets, respectively.

Fortunately, Dannay did not rely upon the King Features version of “The New Racket” — other than, curiously, retaining their title of “The Judge Laughed Last.” A comparison between the two versions reveals that the King Features version deleted about six paragraphs from the beginning, and several more significant deletions throughout the story, which Dannay restored for his reprint in paperback.

In an earlier post,  I noted that “Pick-Up,” “Judge,” and “Death” had been reprinted in various issues of the Saturday Home Magazine, a national supplement used by many city newspapers; however, the dates differ from those provided for the Washington Post. (In my original post, I speculated that “Pick-Up” was a new title for “The Whosis Kid;” I can now confirm that this is true.) Unfortunately, the scans do not include the dates (“Pick-Up,” however, bears the copyright of “1937 King Features Syndicate”), so I am relying upon the accuracy of the poster. Assuming he reported the dates accurately, it appears that King Features made the stories available for publication and newspapers decided to use them when they saw fit.

“Pick-Up” — blurbed as “a new mystery thriller” — includes an introduction that states it “is only the first of three hitherto unpublished short novels . . . woven around the exciting life of Author Hammett’s famous ‘Continental Operative No. 7’ . . . chapters of which will appear every Sunday in the Washington Post.  Start Pick-Up today. Two other Hammett thrillers . . . ‘The Girl with Silver Eyes’ and ‘Girl Hunt’ . . . will follow.” We now know that all of the Hammett stories syndicated by King Features were reprints; none were hitherto unpublished.

There is one last curiosity. According to Robert L. Gale’s A Dashiell Hammett Companion, Hammett wrote a screen story for MGM in 1939 based upon “Fly Paper” with the title “Girl Hunt.” It was rejected.

It seems to be too big a coincidence that King Features syndicated “Fly Paper” as “Girl Hunt” in 1937 and that Hammett would then decide to use that exact title for his screen story two years later. Rather, it raises the question, along with Dannay’s decision to retain the title “The Judge Laughed Last,” as to exactly how involved Hammett may have been in these reprints. Did he invent the new titles? Did he suggest the stories were “new” — even though they had seen print in Black Mask a decade earlier?

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