Hammett: “Corkscrew”

Thanksgiving — the day of bounty, and plenty of it.

I wonder, do we have any bounty to strew Up and Down These Mean Streets?

How about The Return of Terry Zobeck? — who in a race to the finish with his coverage of the editing Frederic Dannay did to Hammett’s short stories has found a plethora of pruning, a cornicopia of cutting, a barrage of blue penciling such as we have not yet seen — done to one of Hammett’s best Continental Op tales.

Serve it up, Terry:

Arguably, there are good reasons why the stories we’ve been revisiting these past eighteen months have been neglected for so long — they are not among Hammett’s best. Some, like “Afraid of a Gun” or “The Second Story Angel” or “One Hour” are either built around a single gag or are unsuccessful experiments. Others, like “The Man Who Killed Dan Odams” or “Ruffian’s Wife” are fine, but ultimately flawed, examples of Hammett learning his craft. While still others, like the Sam Spade stories, are uninspired work done solely for the paycheck.

Among all of these nearly two dozen stories, however, the Op novella “Corkscrew” stands out as top-shelf Hammett. He is having tremendous fun sending-up the traditional western, the stereotypes of which by 1925 had already been set in concrete by Hollywood. Hammett throws in a bronco-busting ride, a steely-eyed gunman, a saloon girl with a heart of gold, and even a gunfight on the main street (at least it’s not at high noon).

I am indebted — once again — to Richard Layman for photographing his copy of “Corkscrew” and sending it to me. Rick was especially kind in photographing his copy since it is in extremely fragile condition and easily could have been damaged further in the process.

The Op is a fish-out-of-water among cowboys and assorted desperadoes. He is sent to Corkscrew, Arizona — in the fictional border county of Orilla — to clean up the town so that corporate interests can safely set up shop. With “Corkscrew” Hammett is clearly exploring the ideas that he would use to even better effect four years later with Red Harvest. In a conversation with Milk River — the steely-eyed gunslinger and the Op’s local hired help — Milk River remarks, “A hombre might guess that you was playing the Circle H. A. R. against Bardell’s crew, encouraging each side to eat up the other, and save you the trouble.” The Op replies, “You could be either right or wrong. Do you think that’d be a dumb play?”

Another thing I like about “Corkscrew” is that the plot unintentionally proves that the more things change the more they remain the same: nearly 90 years later the issues along the Southwest border are still illegal immigrants and drug smuggling.

Of all the stories we’ve examined for their pure texts here on the Mean Streets, none was as heavily edited by Dannay as “Corkscrew.” I compiled just over fourteen pages of edits for this story — many involving large chunks of dialogue or narrative being excised; about three times as many as “This King Business,” the second-place contender.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on Dannay. He did preserve a great story, making it available to many more readers than it otherwise would have had over the years. Despite the numerous edits, the core of the story remains; even in its bastardized form, it has always been one of my favorite Op stories. Lillian Hellman must have agreed since she included it — using Dannay’s edit — in The Big Knockover (Random House, 1966), the collection that was in large part responsible for Hammett’s renewed critical and popular reputation.

(And need I point out that “Corkscrew” is the most glaring omission in the Library of America’s Hammett collection Crime Stories?)

While acknowledging the practical value of Dannay’s version, there are a number of set pieces in the story that suffer from his heavy editing. In one, the Op needs to buy a horse. Milk River suggests the perfect mount for him is out at the Circle H. A. R. Of course, the Op’s being set up to ride an unbroken hellion of a horse. He goes along willingly with the gag knowing that if he gives it a try — and isn’t killed in the process — he will have instant camaraderie with the cowboys that otherwise would take weeks to establish.

The scene was shortened considerably by Dannay, cutting out some amusing description of the Op’s ride, including this bit: “Looking down, I was surprised not to see his kidneys and liver — because I knew damned well he was turning himself inside out.”

In another, the Op provokes a bare-knuckle brawl with Chick Orr, an ex-professional fighter and muscle for Bardell, leader of one of the opposing gangs. In getting ready for the fight, the Op muses:

Popular belief has it that you can do more damage with bare knuckles than with gloves, but as usual, popular belief is wrong. The chief value of gloves is the protection they give your hands. Jaw-bones are tougher than finger-bones, and after you’ve pasted a tough face for a while with bare knuckles you find your hands aren’t holding up very well, that you can’t get the proper snap into your punches. If you don’t believe me, look up the records. You’ll find that knock-outs began to come quicker as soon as the boys in the profession began to pad their fists.

Perhaps the most unfortunate edit concerns some personal history of the Op — Hammett provided such tidbits sparingly and to learn that Dannay cut one such example is especially annoying. It occurs when the Op is talking with Clio Landes — the saloon-girl with the heart of gold. She tells him she is originally from New York (the Op refers to the city as the “noise” — is that long-forgotten onomatopoeian slang for “NYC”?). The Op recalls:

When I was living in New York, back before the war, I had spent quite a few of my evenings in Dick Malloy’s Briar Patch, a cabaret on Seventh Avenue, near where the Ringside opened later. This girl had been one of the Briar Patch’s regular customers a few years after my time there.

As we’ve seen in previous posts, Dannay tended to edit racially sensitive language; there are two examples of this in “Corkscrew.” First, one of the characters is called the Toad; he’s a shop-keeper with an ultimately significant role in the story. In the Dannay version of the story, Hammett never provides an explanation for the odd name. The reason is that in the pure text he is called the Jew. However, when the Op finally meets him, he remarks, “The proprietor wasn’t a Jew — an Armenian or something of the sort, I thought.” Despite this, he continues to be referred to throughout the story as “the Jew.”

Dannay changed all of these references to “the Toad”, which I actually like quite a bit, but never understood.

Second, near the end of the story, the Op comes upon a group of illegal immigrants. He catalogues them as:

A short Jap with a scar from ear to ear, three Slavs, one bearded, barrel-bodied, red-eyed, the other two bullet-headed, cunning-faced; a swarthy husky who was unmistakably Greek; a bowlegged man whose probable nationality I couldn’t guess, and a pale fat man whose china-blue eyes and puckered red mouth were probably Teutonic.

Dannay cut the entire paragraph.

“Corkscrew” provides a couple of instances of the Op’s toughness, even brutality. When he finally goes up against Bardell they shoot it out. The Op is wounded, but he shoots Bardell, mortally wounding him, and then notes, “I could have jumped him, but he was going to die anyhow. That first bullet had got his lungs. I put another into him.”

The Op then goes out into the street where he is confronted by an insanely jealous Milk River who forces him into a showdown. The Op tries to calm down his friend, but he is beyond reasoning with, firing several shots at the Op’s feet. The Op then concludes, “I stopped looking for an out. Blood thickened in my head, and things began to look queer. I could feel my neck thickening. I hoped I wasn’t going to get too mad to shoot straight.”

Despite his having befriended Milk River, the Op was prepared to kill him, if need be. Most of this paragraph was deleted by Dannay.

“Corkscrew” was originally published in the September 1925 issue of Black Mask. Dannay reprinted it first in the September 1947 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and collected it the next year in Nightmare Town.

Lillian Hellman, while using Dannay’s version, made one additional edit in The Big Knockover — as we will see. . . .

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