Hammett: “Dan Odams”

Terry Zobeck returns with another Guest Blog detailing the edits Frederic Dannay made as he gathered Hammett’s short stories into a series of paperbacks over half a century ago — editorial cuts and changes which have been perpetuated in editions of Hammett still for sale today. Previously Terry has provided lists of corrections for “This King Business,” as well as “Death and Company” and “The Second Story Angel.”

In doing these posts I’ve re-read a few stories I haven’t read in ages, this being one. I’d forgotten how damn good “The Man Who Killed Dan Odams” was. It’s been years — decades — since I read it last.

It’s early Hammett — published in the January 15, 1924 issue of Black Mask. He’d been writing for little more than a year, but already this story showed what a fine stylist he was becoming.

Hammett draws upon his time spent in Montana as a strikebreaker, providing evocative descriptions of the open and storm-swept landscape:

He turned from the south now, toward the west, his short, heavy legs pushing him on toward where Tiger Butte bulked against the leaden sky like a great couching cat of black and green, with dirty white stripes where snow lay in coulee and fissure.

As the story opens, the killer is in jail awaiting trial — Hammett never tells us the killer’s name. With the aid of a fake pistol made of soap, he escapes from jail and travels across country where he comes upon an isolated homestead inhabited by a woman and her young son. The woman displays remarkable calm and fortitude in the presence of the killer. The story is tough and hardboiled with sharply drawn characters, and the ending, though reliant upon coincidence, is satisfying.

Even at this early stage in his career, Hammett was using his fiction to explore what would become one of his recurring themes: the nature of moral ambiguity. Joseph Shaw, Hammett’s editor at Black Mask beginning in 1926, the man who would encourage him to go for novel-length works, claimed that Hammett “was one of the most careful and painstaking workmen I have ever known.”

“The Man Who Killed Dan Odams” is proof of Shaw’s judgment. It is particularly unfortunate that Dannay decided to alter Hammett’s text. One assumes that Hammett worked over his manuscript, choosing the words he thought best fit his story. The edits may be minor, yet they somehow lessen the impact. “The Man Who Killed Dan Odams” is a prime example of why there needs to be a definitive edition of Hammett’s stories, restored to their original texts.

In providing these corrections, I have once again followed 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. The underlined words are what Hammett wrote, but which Dannay deleted. The page numbers refer to the story as published in the currently available collection Nightmare Town (1999), which just reused the text as edited by Dannay for his digest collection The Creeping Siamese (1950).

Page Line Top/Bottom Text

69         6           top

          his voice rumbling heavily within the narrow concrete walls.

69         10         top

          After: ‘the man in the cell said’, should be: “Something that –”

69         6           bottom

     Should be a separate paragraph: “Now unlock this here door!”

69         1           bottom

     Should be a separate paragraph: “Flop on the bunk, face down.”

70         18         bottom

     in the rear of a poolroom pool-room

70         3           bottom

     a clump of cotton woods, where the new grass peeped out through what rain and Chinook had spared of the snow.

71         6           top

          the side of a near-by nearby hill

71         21         top

          Should be a new paragraph: The rifle snapped again.

71         6           bottom

     Should be a new paragraph: Then he went on.

71         4           bottom

     plowing heavily through the sticky, clinging mud, his dirt-smeared face set grimly.

72         20         top

          the slicker over his head, smoking and dozing.

72         4           bottom

     a boy of ten or twelve eleven [later, Hammett states the boy’s age at ten or twelve; Dannay appears to have decided to make the age estimate consistent]

73         7           bottom

     the undressed board side walls side-walls

73         2           bottom

     the woman’s face turning to follow him.

74         2           top

          After “Gone.” should be:

                                        “Gone where?”

                                        “Don’t know.”

74         15         top

          Should be a separate paragraph: “Get me some grub.”

74         19         top

          She put the food on the table and, with the boy beside her, resumed her seat on the cot.

74         11         bottom

     Should be a separate paragraph: “You’re bleeding.  Let me fix it.”

74         6           bottom

     She had returned to the cot and he buttoned his shirt.

74         5           bottom

     Should be a separate paragraph: Then:

74         2           bottom

     Nobel’s –eight-ten miles up the coulee.”

74         15         bottom

     He scowled at her, started to speak, changed his mind, and left the shack.

75       4-6        bottom

     from the sewing that occupied her,; and her face, still young in spite of the harshness that work had and [Dannay corrected an obvious error] laid upon it, was less sallow than before, and her eyes were brighter.

76         3           top

          Should be a separate paragraph: The man returned indoors.

76         15         top

          stood out sharply against the wooden wall.

76         20         top          he said at last.

76         17         bottom

     Should be a separate paragraph: He stood in the doorway watching her.

76         12         bottom

     closing the connecting door behind her.

77         7           top

          Should be a separate paragraph: “Drop it!”

77         18         top

          The man in the door swayed and spun half around from the shock of the bullet.

77         15         bottom

     Should be a separate paragraph: “Did he get you, Dick?”

77         11         bottom

     Should be a separate paragraph: “Where’s Buddy?”

77         9           bottom

     put him to bed. I’ll ride over with him tomorrow.”

77         1           bottom

     their red savageness glazed over

78         1           top

          he managed, the words blurred by a gurgle deep in his throat.

78         3           top

          Should be a separate paragraph: “Yes.”

So, there we have one of Hammett’s best early stories restored to its original text.  Next up is “The New Racket”.

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