Hammett: “Who Killed Bob Teal?”

Step-by-step, story-by-story, Terry Zobeck is chipping away at the editing done to Hammett’s short stories by Frederic Dannay over fifty years ago, and this round returns with another tale of the Continental Op. Most Op tales take place in San Francisco — and “Who Killed Bob Teal?” is no exception. Most first saw publication in the pulp Black Mask — and to that, “Teal” is a major exception.

Here’s Terry:

When I started this project I would have bet that “Who Killed Bob Teal?” would have been the last story I would find, given it was published in a rare issue of True Detective Mysteries.

I’ve never seen a copy offered for sale nor have I been able to identify a copy in the archives of any public or university library. But thanks to Hammett biographer Richard Layman providing me with a photographic copy of the story, I’m able to share my documentation of the blue pencil work by Frederic Dannay.

Hammett first submitted “Who Killed Bob Teal?” to Black Mask, but editor Phil Cody rejected it, along with another Op story, “Women, Politics, and Murder.” Hammett famously — if somewhat disingenuously — apologized for these sub-par efforts in a letter to the editor (Black Mask, August 1924):

. . . this sleuth of mine has degenerated into a meal ticket. I liked him at first and used to enjoy putting him through his tricks; but recently I’ve fallen into the habit of bringing him out and running him around whenever the landlord, or the butcher, or the grocer shows signs of nervousness.

There are men who can write like that, but I am not one of them. If I stick to the stuff I want to write — the stuff I enjoy writing —I can make a go of it, but when I try to grind out a yarn because I think there is a market for it, I flop.

Whenever, from now on, I get hold of a story that fits my sleuth, I shall put him to work, but I’m through with trying to run him on a schedule.

He declined to revise and resubmit the two stories to Black Mask (“neither is worth the trouble”); however, something changed Cody’s mind about “Women, Politics, and Murder,” because he published it the following month.

Hammett didn’t just stick “Who Killed Bob Teal?” in a drawer and forget about it. Instead he sent it to True Detective Mysteries, who soon published it in their November 1924 issue; one can assume they were thrilled to get a Hammett Op story, even if it was a reject from Black Mask.

Given the name of the pulp, however, they tried to create the fiction that the tale was a true story from Hammett’s time as a PI — the title page credits the story to “Dashiell Hammett of the Continental Detective Agency”.

The title character, Bob Teal, was a young op that had appeared previously in two tales, “Slippery Fingers” and “Zigzags of Treachery.”  As the story opens, the Old Man informs the Op that “Teal was killed last night.” While not among the top tier of Op stories, “Who Killed Bob Teal?” is significant because Hammett tries out an idea that he would re-use, to better effect, in The Maltese Falcon.

Spoiler Alert: Teal’s body is found with singeing on the breast of his coat — he was obviously facing his killer at short range when he was shot twice through the heart; Teal never pulled his gun. The Op, much like Spade five years later in explaining Archer’s murder in the Falcon, concludes that only Teal’s client could have gotten that close to Teal while he was tailing a suspect, without arousing his suspicion.

The story also contains a great character in the person of Mrs. Whitacre/Mae Landis, the alleged wife of the prime suspect. She’s a tough cookie who can lie convincingly to the Op and then knows how to cut a deal for herself when the lies don’t hold up.

Once again, Dannay felt the need to edit the story when he reprinted it in the July 1947 issue of Ellery Queen and then collected it in Dead Yellow Women later that year —cutting three kids and their puppy out of the story! And, once again I’ve followed my usual format in documenting those edits: 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 paperback digest first edition Dead Yellow Women from Spivak.


Page no.    Line #     Top/bottom     Text

95              1             top                   “Teal was killed last night”; should be a separate paragraph.

95              1             bottom            The Old Man didn’t look at me as he went on. He was talking to the open window at his elbow.

97/98         1/1          bottom/top      He looked at me blankly for a moment out of wide brown eyes, and then repeated: “Killed?”

98              7             bottom            Whitacre and the money. I left him trying frantically to get his attorney on the telephone.

99              18           top                   by tomorrow or the next day.

99              10           bottom            Dean’s glance met mine, and I nodded an answer to the question that I read there.

100            15           bottom            Finally she shrugged, her face cleared, and she looked up at us.

101            7             top                   leaving me with only twenty dollars to my name and not even much that I could hock, and with the rent due in four days

101            3             bottom            “Go ahead,” she invited. “Take it apart if you want to. I’m coming all the way with you people.”

101            1             bottom            Whitacre, when he had burned the things that might have given him away, had made a clean job of it.

102            7             top                   Dean and I rode down in the elevator in silence, and walked out into Gough Street.

102            9             bottom            sewing on a pair of overalls, while three dirty kids tussled with a mongrel puppy up and down the room.

102            8             bottom            and told her that we wanted to speak to her in privacy. She got up to chase the kids and their dog out, and then stood with hands on hips facing us.

102            1             bottom            “Who lives in number one?” I asked.: should be a separate paragraph.

103            19           bottom            to see what they look like, and prying into their business.

103            9             bottom            “No.” Triumphantly: Dark.”

“Dark eyes, too?”

“I guess so.”

104            16           top                   an’ maybe sharin’ a cell with ‘em. Think that over.

105            2             top                   and he went to the telephone in the front room to arrange it.

107            7             bottom            they’d need a meeting-place of some sort. The rest of the box of cartridges there helped some too.


This leaves us needing the original text for just three stories: “Corkscrew,” “Mike, Alec, or Rufus” and “The Nails in Mr. Cayterer.”

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