Hammett: “The Black Hat That Wasn’t There”

And Terry Zobeck is back, with more info on the Op yarn “It” — here’s Terry:

Frederic Dannay reprinted “It” — which first appeared in the November 1, 1923 issue of Black Mask — in his 1951 collection Woman in the Dark.Among the other changes he made, the most obvious was dropping the story’s original title and replacing “It” with “The Black Hat That Wasn’t There.”

At first, as I reread this story, I thought the pulp title was rather poor
and didn’t blame Dannay for changing it (no pun intended here or throughout
this piece). But, as I was reading the climactic scene — the Op’s struggle with
his killer client, Zumwalt, in a darkened basement and subsequent discovery of
the gruesome “it” — I realized, once again, that Hammett got it right.

Dannay took his title from this same scene. When the Op is caught by
Zumwalt in the basement he raises his hands, giving him the opportunity to
break the overhead light bulb and plunge the room into total darkness. As the
Op lies waiting silently on the floor he thinks of “Tad’s ‘blind man in a dark
room hunting for the black hat that wasn’t there.’”

This is a curious quote. In trying to document its source I could not
find an attribution to anyone named Tad. It appears to be a somewhat common
metaphor that has been misattributed to Charles Darwin — who supposedly applied
it to mathematicians (changing the hat to a cat). According to Wikipedia, the
earliest source is Baron Charles Bowen, a late 19th century English judge who is reported to have said: “When I hear of an ‘equity’ in a case like this, I am reminded of a blind man in a dark room — looking for a black hat — which isn’t there” (as quoted in Pie Powder, Being Dust from the Law Courts: Collected and Recollected on the Western Circuit, by a Circuit Tramp [1911] by John Alderson Foote).

Hammett liked the metaphor so much that he used it again in The Dain Curse. Chapter IX is titled “Tad’s Blind Man”. On page 91-92 of the first edition, Hammett has the Op
thinking the exact same words, this time though, as he sits at night in a
darkened car. In Robert Gale’s A Dashiell Hammett Companion he mistakenly identifies Tad as a character in The Dain Curse, giving him this entry:

“Tad. In The Dain Curse he is mentioned by the Op as a blind man frustrated in a dark room.”

Hammett, however, is obviously quoting someone named Tad, as is evident from the quote marks enclosing the words as they appear in “It” — they are absent in The Dain Curse —and the chapter title: it isn’t “Tad the Blind Man.”

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