Hammett: “The Vicious Circle”

Fresh off his dive into the archives in the Library of Congress, Terry Zobeck is back with a new set of pure text corrections for one of Hammett’s earliest stories — he apologises for the cover image of the issue of Black Mask in question, photographed instead of scanned, not being quite as well-framed as the covers used with previous installments of this series. But I figure it’s more than good enough for a rough & tumble blog post, from Hammett enthusiasts in the trenches, under fire, letting you know what Hammett wrote — not the edited texts you’ve been reading for decades.

Here’s Terry:

“The Vicious Circle” is early Hammett; it was his sixth published short story (if you count the two short shorts “The Parthian Shot” and “Immortality”) and only his second in Black Mask (the June 15, 1923 issue). It also was among the eight stories he signed under the penname Peter Collinson. The Black Mask editor wrote that “The Vicious Circle” was “one of the best stories we’ve run for a long time — with the regular Black Mask touch — and a plot you won’t fathom until the last word.”

Black Mask must have been having a particularly poor run of stories at the time for “The Vicious Circle” to be among their best. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not entirely without merit — it has a nice set-up and is certainly a tough-minded story, but there’s not much excitement in the telling. My favorite thing about it is the setting — Washington, DC. Perhaps I can start an East Coast version of the Hammett Tour!

An unnamed Senator with presidential ambitions meets with a shady constituent to seek his help in dealing with a blackmailer who can ruin the Senator. He gets what he wants, but the moral of the story is “be careful what you wish for.”

Frederic Dannay was rather free with the blue pencil this time around, starting with the title. When he reprinted the story in the April 1951 issue of Ellery Queen (and later that year in Woman in the Dark) he changed the title to “The Man Who Stood in the Way.” It is
with this story that we see perhaps Dannay’s most audacious editing — he actually rewrites the opening paragraph, inserting his own description of the Senator. We also have another example of Dannay editing Hammett’s work for the sake of social sensitivity.

In documenting the original text, I’ve used the same format as my earlier posts — page number, line number, whether it is from the top or bottom of the page, and the text corrections, with Hammett’s original text that was deleted underlined. The page numbers refer to the 1951 first edition Woman in the Dark.


Page no.    Line #     Top/bottom     Text

120                                 title              The Man Who Stood in the Way
The Vicious Circle

120               1                top                The Senator kept biting his
lip, as if he were beset with problems of insurmountable difficulty. He
Senator was a massive man, exuding an air of power.

120               4                top                scarcely adequate for his
its task;

120               12              top                under
the tread trend of his heavy feet [this appears to be an
appropriate edit]

120               10              bottom         cram
coarse black nigger-wool tobacco into a yellow-gray corncob

121               16              top                to the hat on the floor occasionally,

121               15              bottom         ignore it altogether, as something
unworthy of a man’s attention

122               6                top                Gene Inch nodded his head
slightly, waiting.

122               12/13         top                Should be a separate paragraph:
“Yeah, I know you pardoned Tom.”

122               15              top                “You’ll help me, then?” The
Senator insisted.

122               17              top                The Senator quailed and his
eyes widened

122               8                bottom         they are talking of running me for
President in 1924.

123               11              bottom         Inch twisted the end of his long nose between
a scrawny thumb and finger
, reflectively.

124               1                top                known to be for a
friend of mine.

124               2                top                if you killed him

124               12              top                [The break between paragraphs
should be titled “II”]

124               3                bottom         [The break between paragraphs should be
titled “III”]

125               5                top                [This paragraph should be part
of the preceding one.]

125               17              top                Should be a separate paragraph:
“Come in and close the door behind you.”

125               18              bottom         Then he motioned his captive to a chair
and himself sat on the edge of the bed.

126               17              bottom         “Shut your mouth, damn you!”
Inch snapped irritably, shaking his revolver at the blackmailer.

127               12              top                “Nothing to identify him by at

127               17              bottom         “You sure-God hit him pretty;
[This also should be a separate paragraph]

127               15/16         bottom         [The break between paragraphs should be
titled “IV”]

127               8                bottom         hope and fear, eagerness and

127               7                bottom         Inch nodded with cool assurance.

127               2                bottom         with a sobbing intake of breath,
and the color began to flow back in his face

128               2                top                “Ain’t nothing can happen! Everything
is all right!


I am deeply indebted to Mr. Clark Evans of the LOC’s Rare Book Room for arranging my access to these fragile pulps and for helping me to photograph them. In the coming weeks
I’ll be documenting the edits made to “Afraid of a Gun” and the Continental Op tale “Night Shots.”

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