Hammett: “Mike or Alec or Rufus”

We just had a post from occasional Guest Blogger Brian Leno — how about one from the much more frequently appearing Terry Zobeck?

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.

Here’s Terry:

“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.

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