As you might expect, Terry spent some of his spare time during PulpFest prowling the stacks of the Ohio State University rare books library to track down another Hammett story for a check on possible edits made by Frederic Dannay. I believe that leaves us with only two more to go.
“Mike or Alec or Rufus,” the 15th Continental Op story, appeared in the January 1925 issue of Black Mask. No more proof of Hammett’s insincerity in his letter to the editor in the August 1924 issue is needed, where Hammett wrote:
. . . this sleuth of mine has degenerated into a meal ticket. I liked him at first and used to enjoy putting him through his tricks; but recently I’ve fallen into the habit of bringing him out and running him around whenever the landlord, or the butcher, or the grocer shows signs of nervousness.
The landlord, butcher, and grocer must all have been hospitalized with a severe case of nerves for Hammett to have submitted this story. For me, it ranks as the least of the Ops, with little to recommend it beyond the fact that it is an Op story. If you have read any of Hammett’s book reviews you know that his most damning criticism of his contemporaries’ efforts was that they lacked excitement. It’s too bad he didn’t apply a little bit more self-criticism to this story; it lacks any kind of interest, let alone excitement.
Like “One Hour,” “Mike or Alec or Rufus” is an obvious exercise on Hammett’s part. In “One Hour” he wanted to see if he could write a story in which all of the action occurred over the course of an hour. While not altogether successful, at least “One Hour” features a terrific (and exciting) brawl between the Op and a gang of toughs.
In “Mike or Alec or Rufus” the exercise was to see if a story could be told solely through the Op interviewing victims and suspects. All of the action, as it were, occurs in an apartment building, mostly in the apartment of the victim, over the course of an hour or two. The problem is that for a story that relies so heavily on dialogue, the talk lacks crackle and snap. There is none of the humor that Don and I like so much in other Op stories, or anything else, to hold the reader’s interest.
On the other hand, after this story, Hammett hit his stride, turning out eight classic Op stories in a row: “The Whosis Kid,” “The Scorched Face,” “Corkscrew,” “Dead Yellow Women,” “The Gutting of Couffignal,” “The Creeping Siamese,” “The Big Knockover” and “$106,000 Blood Money.” Given this run, it is easy to forgive “Mike or Alec or Rufus.”
When Dannay came to collect the story in The Creeping Siamese (1950; he did not first reprint it in Ellery Queen), he made numerous edits, the most significant of which were a change of title to “Tom, Dick, or Harry” and the deletion of a paragraph. Hammett’s original title is nothing more than a reference to a throwaway line from the Op near the end of the story. Dannay’s substitute is simply a more modern cliché with no more relevancy to the story than Hammett’s original.
In 1950, the events of the Holocaust had received worldwide attention only five years before, so the most interesting edits are those made in presumable sensitivity to their potential to being cited as anti-Semitic. The case involves the Op, acting on behalf of an insurance company, investigating the apparent theft of jewelry. The victim’s daughter is named Phyllis, and is described as “a smart little Jewess of the popular-member-of-the-younger-set type.” Dannay deleted reference to her being Jewish, changed the family name from Coplin to Toplin, and the father’s first name from Jacob to Frank. These changes comprise the majority of Dannay’s edits to the story.
The story also was collected in Nightmare Town (1999), still in print; the editors used Dannay’s version.
As usual, the following list provides the page number, the line number and whether it is from the top or bottom of the page, and the affected text — Hammett’s original wording is underlined. The page numbers refer to the story as it appears in The Creeping Siamese.
Page Line Top/Bottom Text
62 Title Tom, Dick or Harry Mike or Alec or Rufus
62 1 top Frank Toplin Jacob Coplin
62 6 top Also Besides he and I in the room that first time, there were his wife,
62 8 top Phyllis, a smart little Jewess of the popular-member-of-the-younger-set type;
62 16 top I told Toplin Coplin
62 17 top Toplin’s Coplin’s yellow sphere
62 11 bottom Now, Frank Jakie,
62 10 bottom Phyllis Toplin’s Coplin’s dark eyes twinkled, and she winked one of them at me.
62 6 bottom loss stuff [“stuff” should be italicized]
63 9 top had called to them to hurry with their dressing when the doorbell rang.
63 17/16 bottom where Mr. Toplin Coplin was, and he shot Mr. Toplin Coplin
63 15 bottom Toplin Coplin took the
63 6 bottom he didn’t don’t say a word all the this time, not a word-just made makes motions
64 6 top Toplin Coplin said
64 6 bottom I asked Mrs. Toplin Coplin
64 5 bottom “Twenty-five, I’d I’ll say.”
64 3 bottom “I don’t know exactly, sir,; but he wasn’t very old.”
64 1 bottom Toplin Coplin said.
65 17 top Phyllis Toplin Coplin
65 15 bottom and got a pencil and sheet of paper
65 12 bottom I got the list half an hour later [should be a separate paragraph]
65 11 bottom I asked as I reached for my hat.
65 7 bottom and outdoor athletics written all over her.
65 4 bottom that insured the Toplin Coplin’s jewelry,
66 2 top A penalty of femininity.—I forgot
66 6 top “Inside, Kid!” [should be a separate paragraph]
66 15 top man, so I tried to take him in hand.
66 17 bottom of the Toplin Coplin robbery.
66 2 bottom Blue,. his His hair
67 9 top broad-shouldered [should be one word]
67 15 top the Toplin’s Coplin’s door,
67 14 bottom an’ the Toplin’s Coplin’s apartment
67 11 bottom Ambrose, the elevator boy, to give the alarm
67 4 bottom Then we let the Toplins Coplins out
68 8 top like old man Toplin Coplin
68 13 top “Who is the newest tenant you have?” [should be a separate paragraph]
68 2 bottom I see him with Phyllis Toplin Coplin a lot”
68 1 bottom How long have the Toplins Coplins been here?”
69 7 top outside of the Toplin’s Coplin’s door,
69 3 bottom [prior to this paragraph should be] Neither of them had seen anyone in the building either before or after the Coplins were turned for their jewels who fit the robber’s description.
70 5 top The Toplin Coplin doings for the insurance company.
70 12 top Before pressing the Toplin Coplin bell
70 15 top diamond ring that looks like one of the Toplin Coplin lot
70 14 bottom where Mrs. Toplin Coplin
70 2 bottom “Why certainly!” Mrs. Toplin Coplin exclaimed. “That’s Thad’s Mr. Wagener [Dannay corrected an obvious typo]
71 4 top “Certainly!” Mrs. Toplin Coplin said, looking the ring. “It Id belongs to Phyllis, [another obvious type corrected by Dannay]
71 9 top “I can explain everything,” she announced. [should be a separate paragraph]
71 9 bottom “Mrs. Toplin Coplin,” I asked
71 7 bottom “No! He could not be id (“id” should be “it” or “him”; Dannay sorted it out by just dropping “be id”; this line should be a separate paragraph]
72 6 top Toplins Coplins. Second: the Toplins Coplins framed the robbery themselves
72 16 top [After: I don’t ask for any more than I’ve got.” Should be this line, which should be a separate paragraph] That wasn’t so foolish.
72 13 bottom I’m showing the boy to old man Toplin Coplin
72 9 bottom send him to the Toplin’s Coplin’s apartment.
72 1 bottom I took her into the Toplins’ Coplins’ apartment
73 1 top found everybody in Frank Toplin’s Jacob Coplin’s bedroom
73 5 top “You’re wrong,” she said. “That’s not he.” [should be a separate paragraph]
73 6 top It was a pipe that if the Toplins Coplins were tied up
73 11 top The other one rang the bell just then, and the maid brought him into the room.
73 13 top “Know him, McBirney?” [should be a separate paragraph]
73 17 bottom “No-o-o-o,” the janitor drawled,
73 2 bottom It’s dollars to doughnuts marks
74 13 top I turned to Frank Toplin Jacob Coplin.
74 16 top I could get at least a one-eyed view of everybody else
75 6 top Frank Toplin Jacob Coplin, his wife, young Wagener
75 8 top Phyllis Toplin Coplin was looking at me
75 15 top Phyllis Toplin Coplin exploded.
76 8 top “Your gallantry does you credit, and all the like of that, but I think
76 10 top I hauled her (or him,—whichever you like)—to his or her feet [the edits here are a bit confusing—Hammett’s original does not have the parentheses, the comma after “him”, or the space between “which” and “ever” and adds an em-dash after “like”]
76 11 top “Feel like telling us about it?” [should be a separate paragraph]
76 17 top —what do you call it? —
76 10 bottom twist his plans to account for it—; [the em-dash should be deleted and the semi-colon added]
76 3/2 bottom But the The Toplin Coplin sparklers came to light
While attending the recent Pulpfest in Columbus, Ohio I took the opportunity to visit the Rare Book & Manuscript Library — the Thompson Library — of Ohio State University, which archives a copy of the January 1925 issue of Black Mask. I am indebted to Dr. Eric Johnson, Assistant Professor and Associate Curator at the Library, Rebecca Jewett, Assistant Curator, and Benjamin — the graduate student who held the pages open while I photographed them — for providing access to the magazine and permitting me to photograph the story.