Hammett: “Slippery Fingers”


Guess who’s back with another installment of Zobeck: Series Two?

You got it.

And here’s Terry Zobeck:


The other day, Don sent me a link to a piece by Francis M. Nevins on the Mystery File blog that mentions the work we’ve been doing here on These Mean Streets in restoring the pure text of Hammett’s short stories. Seems our work was brought to his attention via several posts by Steve Carper on The Digest Enthusiast, a blog that celebrates the old digest magazines, including those edited by Fred Dannay and featuring Hammett’s work. Carper has posted several articles on Hammett’s appearances in these digests and mentioned our work in a few of them.

It’s been more than a year since my last guest blog — but about a week before Don sent me the link I had begun comparing the pure text of “Slippery Fingers” to Dannay’s edited version. Coincidently, Nevins mentions this story in his recent blog. I know that coincidences aren’t supposed to happen in detective fiction, but in real life they sometimes happen. This is one.

“Slippery Fingers” was one of two stories by Hammett in the October 15, 1923 issue of Black Mask. In my last Series Two guest blog, I dealt with the first story, “Crooked Souls.”

To avoid the appearance of having two “Hammett” stories in a single issue, the editor attributed “Slippery Fingers” to Peter Collinson, the pseudonym that Hammett had used for “Arson Plus” — the first Op story — and other early stories published in Black Mask; although Hammett was to use the penname two more times, “Slippery Fingers” was the last of the Op stories signed with it. Dannay collected the story in Woman in the Dark (1951); the pure text version was collected in Crime Stories and Other Writings (2001).

“Slippery Fingers” was the third Op story to see print. Hammett had not yet perfected his ability to meld his real-life detective experience with an exciting story. Here he builds his story on the alleged ability to forge fingerprints to hide the identity of the criminal. It is a weak plot and Hammett telegraphs the centrality of the fingerprint dodge to the solution of the crime too many times.

Hammett was obviously aware that readers might doubt the credibility of his method for forging fingerprints since the same issue of Black Mask contained a letter from him attempting to demonstrate its feasibility.

By 1923, the use of fingerprints in criminal investigations had been in wide use in the United States for about 20 years. The thought that criminals could forge prints and thereby circumvent justice was of great concern to law enforcement and the courts. Several methods were proposed, most of which involved making a cast of the fingers of a donor whose prints were not on file with the authorities and using that cast to leave prints to misdirect the police.

A recent book chapter by Champod and Espinoza (2010) reviews the history of claims of forged prints and discusses the various proposed methods and their limitations, including metal plate etching, the method chosen by Hammett’s villain. The unique (and suspect) aspect of Hammett’s method is transferring the forged prints to the criminal’s fingers via a gelatin.

The bottom line is that if such methods of forgery were easily executable by criminals and difficult to detect by forensic experts, fingerprints would have been discredited as reliable evidence in the courts decades ago. They haven’t.

The most important aspect of Hammett’s letter in the same issue is that he clearly identifies himself as the author of “Slippery Fingers,” thus exposing the Collinson pseudonym.

I’ve followed my usual style of noting the edits: page number, line number, whether it is from the top or bottom of the page, and the edited text; Hammett’s original text is underlined.  The page numbers refer to Woman in the Dark.  To just read the pure text of “Slippery Fingers,” look to Library of America’s Crime Stories.


Page       Line        top/bottom      Text

29           4             top                   but I’ll have to have the whole story

29           15           top                   best poker player west of Chicago. He was a cool, well-balanced, quick-thinking little man.

29           8             bottom             to have heard anything during the evening night.

30           3             top                   father had drawn ten thousand dollars $10,000

30           9             top                   After “Do you know of any enemies your father had?” should be a separate paragraph: He shook his head.

30           14           bottom             nineteen twelve 1912

32           9             top                   ten thousand dollars $10,000

33           7             top                   for considerable money had been involved in the dispute, and Waldeman was a “mean cuss, for a fact,”

33           18           top                   in the city for a week or 10 days longer.

34           8-7          bottom             Dannay added the year “1922” to each of the dates after the first one and before the last date, which occurred in 1923.

35           10           top                   twelve thousand, five hundred dollars $12,500

35           11           bottom             have him thrown in the can, but I don’t think he will.

36           3             top                   most natural thing in the world—and it was at that—for me to suspect him.

37           4             top                   a chance to turn up his partner, : the owner of the fingers that had smeared blood on the knife, the table, and the door.

37           10           top                   apartment number twenty-seven 27

37           18           bottom             a photographer by trade, with a studio on Market Street.

37           10           bottom             after “Nothing” should be:

“Nothing at all?”

“No, sullenly.”

37           9             bottom             after “No.” should be:

What can you do with a bird like that?

38           3             top                   I got a split lip and kicked shoulder in the scuffle

38           11           bottom             I blurted, my face a nice rosy, red.

38           7             bottom             Clane laughed again, like a crow cawing,

38           6             bottom             Mr. Slick Private Detective?”

40           18           top                   and gave me the ten thousand.  I told him this was the last time I’d ever bother him—I always told him that—it had a good effect on him.

40           1             bottom             letters or telegrams—though they were wrote in careful enough language. Anyway I figured

41           18           bottom             fixed up my hands this morning. That’s my yarn.

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