Hammett: “The Green Elephant”


Terry Zobeck just did an entry in Zobeck: Series Two the other day, but I’m sure Hammett fans are always ready for another one.

Take it away, Terry:


“The Green Elephant” was Hammett’s sixth and final appearance in the pages of The Smart Set, which had begun publication in 1900 with the goal of targeting New York’s social and cultural elite with stories written for and by their peers. The magazine followed the pulp format in appearance, but with more literary-minded content and lacking the garish and sensational covers of the pulps. It reached its heyday under the editorship of H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan (1914-1924). Mencken was the legendary, iconoclastic social and literary critic and journalist from Baltimore (known as “the Sage of Baltimore”); Nathan was one of the leading theatre critics of his day. They were hired in 1908 to write book reviews (Mencken) and theatre reviews (Nathan); by 1914, they were co-editing the magazine.

Hammett’s first appearance in print was “The Parthian Shot,” a miscellaneous piece in the October 1922 issue of The Smart Set. Over the next 12 months he placed five more pieces in the magazine, one short-short (“The Crusader”, August 1923), three articles of which “From the Memoirs of a Private Detective” (March 1923) is the most memorable, and “The Green Elephant” (October 1923), the most substantial piece of the six.

Shortly after this story’s publication, Mencken and Nathan were let go over a satirical piece on the funeral procession of President Warren G. Harding, who they felt deserved the same satirical treatment from them in death as they had given him in life. The piece was pulled from publication (the publisher considered it to be treason) and the following year (1924) the magazine was sold to William Randolph Hearst, who changed the focus of the magazine; it ceased publication in 1930.

“The Green Elephant” is a sardonic tale featuring another of Hammett’s scared-little-man characters. This time around it is Joe Shupe, a small-time crook working the mean streets of Spokane. He possesses no particular criminal skill. As his mentor Doc Haire says:

Making a living on the mace ain’t duck soup! Take half these guys you hear telling the world what wonders they are at puffing boxes, knocking over joints, and the rest of the lays—not a half of ’em makes three meals a day at it! Then what chance has a guy that ain’t got no regular racket, but’s got to trust to luck, got? Huh?

But this day, luck is with Joe. He is in the right place at the right time. While standing idly on the corner he witnesses a heist of cash being transferred by a bank. During the shoot-out the crook who steals the bag with the cash runs toward Joe. The thief is gunned down at Joe’s feet and the bag slides right to Joe “balancing itself as nicely as a boy on skates”.

Joe picks up the bag and escapes to his hotel where he soon learns that the bag is stuffed with “all the money in the world.” He later learns that the bank was robbed of $250,000!

Joe is not the brightest of criminals and what imagination he has soon runs wild. He fears everyone and is terrified of losing the money to the extent that he changes hotels everyday and is afraid to go out except to eat. He eventually leaves Spokane for Seattle. But the change of scenery is of no help. The green elephant weighs so heavily on him he cannot function and becomes physically ill and an emotional wreck. It is a relief to him when he is finally caught and the money taken away.

I’ve always had a soft spot for “The Green Elephant.” I was young when I first read it and thought the twist ending was a delight. The mature me sees that it is minor, albeit amusing, Hammett and I still like it well enough. Doc Haire’s description of criminal skills is wonderful Hammett — my best guess at “puffing boxes” is safe cracking.

Dannay first reprinted the story in the November 1945 issue of EQMM and collected it in Dead Yellow Women in 1947. For such a short story, he made several heavy edits, chopping out substantial sections of several paragraphs. While they don’t interfere with the reader’s ability to enjoy the story, they do detract from Hammett’s intent, and are therefore regrettable. The pure text version of “The Green Elephant” is available in Vince Emery’s Lost Stories (2005).

The 1945 EQMM, however, was not the first time the story was reprinted. That distinction goes to The Smart Set Anthology (1934), edited by Burton Roscoe and Groff Conklin; it is the first appearance of the story in book form and uses the pure text from the magazine. Roscoe was a prominent writer and editor of the time and was friends with both Mencken and Nathan. He also was a long-time fan of The Smart Set, having a complete run of the magazine. He was intimately familiar with its contents and emphasized collecting stories that had not appeared in book form. Oddly, in his lengthy introduction, in which he discusses the merits of many of the authors featured in the anthology, there is no mention of Hammett, who was at the peak of his popularity at the time the book was published. This may be attributed to Roscoe’s somewhat snobbish literary tastes. On the other hand, he correctly picked the two best Hammett pieces from the pages of The Smart Set for his anthology, the current story and “From the Memoirs of a Private Detective,” which also had never appeared in book form at this point.

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 that was edited is underlined. The page numbers refer to Dead Yellow Women. The pure text of “The Green Elephant” appears in the Lost Stories.


Page       Line        top/bottom      Text

110         1             top                   in the original Hammett included chapter breaks denoted with Roman numerals; there should be a “I” at the beginning of the text.

110         2             top                   But the time for that next pilgrimage to the shrines of Industry, through which he might reach the comparative paradise of employment, was still some twenty hours away;

110         15           bottom             Joe had not given that a thought; and had his attention been called to it he probably would have been unable to see in it anything but further evidence of the Swede’s unfitness for the possession of money.

111         9             top                   Joe Shupe’s unaccustomed introspection.

111         11           bottom             Joe climbed into the car and found a seat.

112         11           top                   All the money in the world! [should be followed by the chapter break “II”]

112         12           bottom             Mmanilla wrappers [Dannay rightly corrected Hammett’s spelling error].

113         4             top                   a decidedly and humorously padded appearance

113         10           top                   dropped them into the fifth; after which he walked—almost scuttled—for ten minutes, turning corners and slipping through alleys, until he was positive he was not being watched.

114         3             top                   making a large but inconspicuous bundle—laundry, perhaps.

114         14           top                   to the newspaper again, and read the story of the robbery.

114         11           bottom             Or he should drop the bundle? Or someone should bump heavily into it?

114         3             bottom             or to any place at all, for that matter, [should be followed by the chapter break “III”]

115         18           bottom             “Yes,” he said. [should be a separate paragraph]

115         18           bottom             was not going to leave his hand until he had found a securer place for it. So he dozed uncomfortably through the ride over the Cascades, sprawled over to seats in the smoking-car, leaning against the valise.

115         6             bottom             in cautious amounts;:

116         7             top                   thieves in droves; so he put them away in his valise, and thereafter wore his old clothes.


Next time we’ll take a look at what Dannay may have done to “Laughing Masks” from the November 1923 issue of Action Stories.



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