Hammett: More on “Death”

Prompted by Terry Zobeck’s post on “Death and Company,” I pulled out my Dell Mapback edition of The Return of the Continental Op and checked through all his corrections. Took a little bit of work, since Terry’s page and line numbers refer to the first edition, the Lawrence Spivak digest-sized paperback — but once I got into the flow of the story, it wasn’t that hard to figure out where the missing stuff belonged.

I prefer the look of the Mapbacks over that of the first edition digests myself, but my ragtag collection of the Dannay edits is split about half-and-half between digests and Mapbacks, since I only have them to read the stories. Bottom line, a Hammett fan just wants to read the stories.

Terry’s corrections have forced me to rethink an idea I’ve entertained for years, which I touched on specifically on page 108 of the newest Hammett tour book, using some backup data previously dropped on page 70. To sum up, I have thought that Hammett intended the aptly titled “The Farewell Murder” to be his personal good-bye to the Continental Op series, and in effect to Black Mask, not “Death and Company.”   

“Farewell” appeared in the February 1930 issue of the Mask. That same month Knopf released The Maltese Falcon in hardback, following Red Harvest and The Dain Curse in 1929. Hammett’s Hollywood work, the really big money, had begun.

For all practical purposes, Hammett’s pulp era was over. Yes, his next novel, The Glass Key, would appear in Black Mask in four parts in the March, April, May and June 1930 issues, but that was already in the pipeline. You say adios to the short fat Op, turn in the new novel you’ve written with Knopf in mind, set your sights on the future, and don’t look back.

But then “Death and Company” saw print in the November 1930 Black Mask — after that, no more Hammett in the magazine where he made his name.

My idea was that Hammett pulled “Death and Company” out of a reject stack from circa 1924 or 1925, to give editor Cap Shaw one more chance to toss his byline onto the contents page. “Death” reads to me like something from this same period, when Hammett goes offstride from time to time — as in “Women, Politics and Murder” or “Mike, Alec or Rufus” or “The Creeping Siamese.”

My reasoning was purely based on texts — “Death and Company” doesn’t read like an Op story from the end of his Black Mask run, while “The Farewell Murder” doesn’t really read like a classic Op story at all — it is smoother, cleaner, and consequently less interesting in its way. As in other of his last few stories, the technique is fine, but a certain fire is gone.

And then Terry had to complicate the scenario with more information!

The big clews came as I discovered that Dannay had changed some of the San Francisco street names, for no apparent reason — I know that some people with an interest in Hammett don’t grasp the great symbiotic relationship between the author and The City, but trust me, you don’t change out local details, you don’t omit any information that reflects on Hammett’s time in San Francisco. (I still can’t believe that Hammett’s October 2, 1944 letter to Pru Whitfield — see page 113 in the tour book — was left out of the Selected Letters — come on!)

The line per Dannay, “At first they were making the George-and-Larkin-Street brickpile a midnight target for half the police force,” we now know originally said Turk and Larkin, an actual intersection — who knows from what bizarre impulse Dannay subbed in “George,” which isn’t a street name in San Francisco, then or now. Without doing any research at all, my guess is that the “brickpile” would have been some large structure on the southwest corner, where the massive Federal Building stands today.

And in terms of what we know about Hammett’s life in San Francisco, the intersection of Turk and Larkin is one block west of where he is said to have rented a room in 408 Turk, on the corner at Hyde, and one block south of where the pulp fictioneer and his family lived longest in 620 Eddy Street between Larkin and Polk.

The big piece of info, though, is that “Park Street” is supposed to read “Post Street” as in “Take your police to Apt. 313 at 895 Park St. and you will find the corpse we promised you. . . .”

891 Post Street was Hammett’s last address in San Francisco, before he left late in 1929 to make his assault on New York and Hollywood. As most Hammett fans know, he began a story called “The Thin Man,” set partly in San Francisco and featuring detective John Guild (not Nick and Nora Charles), around the time he left town. He never finished that version, but in the fragment he drops the address 1157 Leavenworth — he had his wife and daughters installed for a year or so in rooms in 1155 Leavenworth. There is no 1157 Leavenworth, no 895 Post Street — but clearly Hammett would offset real street numbers slightly if he decided to play around and use a building he was familiar with in a story.

We are confident he lived in room 401 in 891 Post, and used that room as the apartment for Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon — various pieces of paper back that up, plus when he lived in that apartment Bill Arney used clews in the novel to match details of 401 exactly. But who can say that Hammett didn’t live in another unit in the building at some point, maybe moved from that one to 401, or from 401 to another unit?

A quick check through the various editions of the Hammett tour book failed to turn up any printed mention I may have made about an incident on the tour — the tour, a living thing, almost — which occurred circa 1979 or 1980. On the walk itself, I drop the reference on occasion, but what happened was that as the group stood outside the doors of 891 Post an old lady emerged from the building, recognised what we were up to, and told us, “I remember that guy. He lived in room 312.”

Room 312. Versus room 313 in “Death and Company.” I tell you so that I’m not the only person on the planet being gnawed on by this information.

And coolest of all, I noticed this bit which leaped out full force once I understood that the story featured 891 Post: “The manager of the house told us the apartment had been occupied by a man named Harrison M. Rockfield. She described him: about 35 years old, six feet tall, blond hair, gray or blue eyes, slender, perhaps a hundred and sixty pounds, very agreeable personality, dressed well.” What you have there is Hammett describing himself as the occupant of the apartment!

I’m not yet willing to give over my idea that “Death and Company” doesn’t date from an earlier period, and that Hammett didn’t take that typescript and add 891 Post Street into the action in 1930. And I freely concede, thanks to Terry going after the original text, that if Hammett did write “Death and Company” as his farewell gesture to the Op and Black Mask, then it’s a lot better than I had thought, because he casts himself as the suspect — and that’s fun, fitting, an appropriate note to go out on.

As of today, I’m a much bigger fan of “Death and Company” than I ever have been before. How about you?

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