Hammett: “The Nails in Mr. Cayterer”

BM January 1926

Remember the fireworks going off boom! and bang! a couple of days ago?

As I watched the explosions I was thinking, yeah, if they only knew that Terry Zobeck was about to finish off — complete, fini — his now years-long project of tracking down pure texts on the short fiction of Dashiell Hammett, some of those puffs of color would be in honor of Terry.

You want cause for celebration? The birth of a nation or the wrap-up on Zobeck: Series One is occasion enough for some kind of party.

And now here is Terry Zobeck, to put the nails in the coffin of Mr. Cayterer:


It’s been a little over four years since we started the effort to document the changes Fred Dannay made to Hammett’s short stories when he began reprinting them in the early 1940s, first in the pages of EQMM, and then in a collection of 10 digests over the next 20 years.

When we kicked off this project there were 21 stories that remained unavailable in their pure text form. Story by story, we checked 20 tales for pure texts.

But we’ve been stuck tracking down the final story, “The Nails in Mr. Cayterer” from the January 1926 issue of Black Mask. (Cover image above courtesy, once again, of Galactic Central).

Until now.

On Hammett’s birthday this past May, Don posted a blog announcing the University of South Carolina’s acquisition of Hammett archives of books, magazines, letters, and other memorabilia from the collections of Jo Hammett and Richard Layman. This news prompted me to email Rick asking if he had an inventory of the materials he provided the University. To my surprise, among the donations he detailed was included a pdf of every story Hammett published in Black Mask.

Yes, including “Nails.” Not being shy, I immediately requested a copy of the story, which Rick kindly provided.

From Hammett’s career as a book reviewer we know he had little patience for the conventions of the Golden Age Mystery. The authors of these books raised Hammett’s ire with their thorough ignorance of proper police procedure and the ways of criminals. His most damning criticism of such stories was that they lacked excitement. This makes his rare forays into the style all the more curious. “The Diamond Wager” — an un-ironic pastiche of such stories — ranks among his worst, its obscurity justly earned.

That’s not the case with “The Nails in Mr. Cayterer.” Going over it for this blog was the first time I had read the story in many years. My recollection of it was that it was poor, with a general feeling that it was low-ranking Hammett.

Upon re-reading it my opinion has risen somewhat. What I recognize now is that Hammett was having fun with those conventions — something that was completely lacking with “Wager.”

“Nails” is a curious mixture of the Golden Age and hardboiled styles.

Robin Thin, the story’s narrator, is a 30-something effete young man in the employ of his father’s detective agency. Robin would rather be a poet than a detective. While his narrative style and dialogue is verbose and staid, the dialogue of all the other characters, especially his father, is quite tough. The tongue-in-cheek juxtaposition is rather amusing. This is a gimmick that Rex Stout would have great success with in his Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin novels, the first of which, Fer-de-Lance, was published in 1934. I wonder if he was influenced by “Nails”?

Given how long it has taken us to track down the pure text of “Nails,” it is somewhat ironic that Dannay made very few edits to it — none of them substantial or significant. Perhaps, given the story’s more traditional style, he found it less in need of editing. Dannay did not reprint the story first in EQMM; it was collected straight into The Creeping Siamese in 1950.

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 The Creeping Siamese.

Page    Line     Top/Bottom     Text

37        10        top                   Papa questioned the promoter while scowling sidewise at me.

39        12        top                   What did he say when you sent him word of the leak—if anything?

40        3          bottom             “Oh, no, sir! Not anyone.” [This should be part of the preceding paragraph]

41        15        bottom             Papa asked when we were in the street.

43        15        bottom             humor in his thin face.

44        17        top                   about your you troubles [This is an obvious copy edit error]

45        12        bottom             “You mean kissing?” [This should be a separate paragraph]

48        5          top                   “Got a couple of hours to spare?” he asked,

49        11        top                   them stayed staid for longer

49        18        bottom             That was why they never stayed staid long.

50        7          top                   I have stayed staid with him

54        15        bottom             and bring them here. Hurry.

55        8          bottom             “I’m going to —” [This should be a separate paragraph]


And there you have it, the last of Zobeck: Series One. Coverage of 21 Hammett stories that had not been available in their pure texts to readers since their original appearances in the pulps and slicks of the 1920s and 1930s. We’ve learned that a few stories were reprinted without any edits by Dannay. Some, like “Nails,” were tinkered with only slightly. But others, like “This King Business,” “Corkscrew,”It” and “Death and Company” had substantial edits that lessened the impact of the story. (That these stories all feature the Continental Op make the edits all the more unfortunate.)

In recent years two important volumes, Vince Emery’s Lost Stories and The Library of America’s Crime Stories & Other Writing, have collected the majority of Hammett’s stories in their pure text versions. I’m especially pleased that our efforts led to the LoA reprinting their volume so that the pure text of “This King Business” could be included.

Additionally, the past three years have seen publication of two volumes of rare and previously unpublished Hammett material, The Return of the Thin Man and The Hunter and Other Stories. I’m hopeful that someday we will see publication of Hammett’s complete stories in their pure text versions.

Don and I plan to continue documenting the edits Dannay made to Hammett’s stories — stories that have been reprinted in pure text form, but checking to see what Dannay did to them back in the day — with Zobeck: Series Two.

Next up, “Slippery Fingers.”

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