Hammett: More Dumas, père

Recent posts on the idea of influence of the senior Alexandre Dumas on Hammett and the poisoning motif from The Count of Monte Cristo surfacing in the story “Fly Paper” reminded my good pal Jiro Kimura of something he noticed a few years ago, and specifically asked Joe Gores about in November 2005. To the best of his memory, Gores couldn’t recall anyone pointing this out before. Jiro just asked me if I had heard of this snafu in the Op story — no, not me either.

I’ve known Jiro since at least 1982 or 1983, when he launched a Japanese branch of The Maltese Falcon Society. Jiro’s The Gumshoe Site is pretty famous as one of the first and now longest lived websites devoted to Private Eye fiction. And over the years he has acted as translator into Japanese for a lot of crime novels — for example, Gores’ Spade & Archer.

It’s worth noting that Jiro’s discovery adds a nice twist to the idea of pure texts and only pure texts, since The Library of America volume Crime Stories has the erroneous “hundred” angle in the quote from Monte Cristo, which appears about six paragraphs before the end of the story. Should it be corrected because it’s wrong, or left alone because that’s what Hammett tossed into print?

But let’s get on with it: the math on the dosage which causes Sue Hambleton, heartthrob of the hard-boiled grifter Babe McCloor, to expire in “Fly Paper.” Take it, Jiro:

When I was reading one of Hammett’s stories in 2005, I came across a nagging question, as follows:

“Suppose you were to take a milligramme of this poison the first day, two milligrammes the second day, and so on. Well, at the end of ten days you would have taken a centigramme, at the end of twenty days, increasing another milligramme, you would have taken three hundred centigrammes; that is to say, a dose which you would support without inconvenience, and which would be very dangerous for any other person who had not taken the same precautions as yourself. Well, then, at the end of a month, when drinking water from the same carafe, you would kill the person who drank with you, without your perceiving otherwise than from slight inconvenience that there was any poisonous substance mingled with this water.”

This paragraph is indicated by The Old Man to the Continental Op at the end of “Fly Paper,”  which  Hammett quoted almost word by word from Chapter 52  — “Toxicology” — of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. However, the fatal dose does not add up.  How could you take three  HUNDRED centigrammes (that is, 3 grams) at the end of 20 days? So I found the English version of Dumas’ novel online, as follows:

“Well,” replied Monte Cristo, “suppose, then, that this poison was brucine, and you were to take a milligramme the first day, two milligrammes the second day, and so on. Well, at the end of ten days you would have taken a centigramme, at the end of twenty days, increasing another milligramme, you would have taken three hundred centigrammes; that is to say, a dose which you would support without inconvenience, and which would be very dangerous for any other person who had not taken the same precautions as yourself. Well, then, at the end of a month, when drinking water from the same carafe, you would kill the person who drank with you, without your perceiving, otherwise than from slight inconvenience, that there was any poisonous substance mingled with this water.”

Well, it still does not add up. At least, Hammett did not misquote from the English version.  Next, I found the original French version online, as follows:

“Eh bien,” reprit Monte-Cristo, “supposez que ce poison soit de la brucine, par exemple, et que vous en preniez un milligramme le premier jour, deux milligrammes le second, eh bien, au bout de dix jours vous aurez un centigramme; au bout de vingt jours, en augmentant d’un autre milligramme, vous aurez trois centigrammes,…”

Do you notice “trois centigrammes” rather than “trois CENT centigrammes”?  I assume the English translator mistranslated or the editor misedited or the printer misprinted.

Anyway, the English translator may have been partly responsible for Sue’s poisoning in “Fly Paper.”  No wonder she overdosed!

The anonymous translation of Monte Cristo in English (published by Chapman and Hall in 1846) that Hammett used or quoted in “Fly Paper” was widely read. The new translation by Robin Buss (Penguin Classics, 1996) has corrected this fatal error.

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