Hammett: “The Dimple”

Saucy Stories 101523 How to mark the first day of a New Year? How about The Return of Terry Zobeck?

Terry’s back with another installment of Zobeck: Series Two, where he details editorial changes wrought by Frederic Dannay when he reprinted various Hammett stories. Today you can get these stories in “pure text” versions, but if you’re interested in seeing what Hammett fans had to live with for decades, here you go.

To conclude Zobeck: Series One — Hammett stories that have yet to get a pure text reprint — Terry only needs one more story, “The Nails in Mr. Cayterer” from the January 1926 issue of Black Mask. Maybe 2015 will be the year he finally lands that text and gets to wrap that project up.

Meanwhile, Terry’s at work on yet another pure text project that will blow big time Hammett fans away — certain to be his magnum opus in this vein.

But for now, let’s hit the Mean Streets with a smaller scale inquiry into an early Hammett tale. Here’s Terry:


“The Dimple” is a slight story running to just over three pages in Lost Stories where the pure text can be found. It exists simply for the twist at the end, which was sufficiently racy for the times to meet the requirements of Saucy Stories, where it appeared in the October 15, 1923 issue.

Frederic Dannay reprinted it in the August 1959 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine under the title “In the Morgue”, and collected it in A Man Named Thin (1962), his final Hammett collection.

The story is not without interest to Hammett aficionados. For one thing, the protagonist, Walter Dowe, is a writer. He is so consumed by his work he does not notice until after 3:00 a.m. that his wife, Althea, has not returned from a night at the theatre with friends. He soon learns that there has been a terrible fire with many casualties at the Majestic.

I conducted a little research to try and determine whether this aspect of the story was based on a real event. While there appears to have been two theatres in San Francisco at the time named The Majestic, neither was reported to have suffered such a fire.

On the other hand, unfortunately, there have been many such theatre fires that could have provided the needed inspiration.

After being turned away at the site of the fire, Dowe wakes up his friend Bornis, a police commissioner. Dowe figures Bornis has enough juice to get past the city’s officialdom. They make the rounds of the hospitals without finding her. Bornis then directs the cab to the morgue. Here is one of the only flashes of interesting writing in the story. Dowe and Bornis pass down a long line of victims; the bodies were “mangled horribly; denuded, discolored and none the less terrible because they could not scream.”

Typically, Dannay edits out the part following the semicolon; perhaps he thought it too graphic for 1959 sensibilities, but it is the most powerful and vivid image in the whole story. One suspects that Hammett in his previous job had experience of burn victims.

While Bornis is a good friend of Dowe’s, he and Althea never got along, keeping their distance from one another whenever they met. The twist comes when they discover a body that is seemingly unrecognizable, with:

A face that stampeding leather heels had robbed of features; a torso that was battered and blackened and cut, and from which the clothing had been torn. All that was human of it were the legs; they had somehow escaped disfigurement.

Bornis is the first to recognize Althea’s body, as with a shriek he points at one smooth knee, “See! The Dimple!” I suspect this twist might be lost on more recent generations of overexposed readers.

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 A Man Named Thin.


Page    Line     Top/Bottom     Text

88        15        bottom             In the Morgue The Dimple

88        11        bottom             3:15 A.M. three-fifteen

89        12        top                   been pretty bad . . . Lots of folks hurt . . .

89        3-4       bottom             Told me to wait–; but and I can’t! You’re the a police commissioner–; [the em-dashes should be replaced with semicolons]

89        2          bottom             [the paragraph starting here and running to the first two paragraphs on page 90 (lines 1-15) are a single paragraph in Hammett’s original]

90        16        top                   Bornis finished dressing and they went quickly to the City Hospital Bornis caught up the rest of his clothes and they went down to the street. He finished dressing in the taxicab.

They went to the City Hospital first,

90        12        bottom             When they got back to the taxicab

90        7          bottom             that were mangled horribly; denuded, discolored and none the less terrible because they could not scream.

91        4          top                   He would not believe have this begrimed, mangled thing was his exquisite white Althea!

91        7          top                   it was almost a shriek:


Next up in this series is a classic Op tale, “Crooked Souls”.

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