Hammett: “The Gatewood Thing” Caper

HammettToday is the 54th anniversary of the death of Dashiell Hammett — and starts us toward the five year marker for this blog (although the website itself kicked off in late 2000 — hey, a fifteen year anniversary!).

As a mini-memorial, how about a little series of posts on Hammett’s story “Crooked Souls” from the October 15, 1923 issue of The Black Mask?

In many ways, this yarn about the Continental Op and kidnapping is one of the most interesting case studies you can get out of Hammett. It got a new title from Hammett himself, so you might know it better as “The Gatewood Caper.” And that new title came in early, within a couple of years of the story’s first appearance.

Sometime in the middle 1920s Hammett mocked-up a collection of Op stories under the title Including Murder, using tear sheets from Black Mask with holograph deletions and other changes. First he changed the title “Crooked Souls” to “The Gatewood Thing,” and then finally to “The Gatewood Caper.”

If you’ve read the story in most of the reprints of the last sixty-plus years, you know it as “The Gatewood Caper.” But when the collection Crime Stories from Library of America collected a bunch of Hammett’s stories in “pure text” form, they went back to the 1923 version from Black Mask and the first title.

I reviewed this book for Publishers Weekly — you can find the review in full on the Amazon page — but only had so many words available, so I left out one of the most interesting things in the differing texts.

Interesting to me, at any rate.

In general, I like the original pulp wording better, but in the case of “Crooked Souls” I thought more modern editors had done Hammett a huge favor by cutting something out. I was thinking Lillian Hellman had cut the wording, but Terry Zobeck in his series of posts about the editing Frederic Dannay did on Hammett short stories demonstrates that Hellman took her text for the standard collection The Big Knockover from the Dannay edits. As one example, every change Dannay made to the Op story “Corkscrew” is included in the Hellman-edited version, and she included only one of her own.

So, what did I agree really needed to be cut?

The Op is running through his reasons why he didn’t think the victim was actually kidnapped, and the first words out of his yap are:

“. . .I’m a little doubtful about grown persons being kidnapped in cities. Maybe it really happens sometimes, but at least nine-tenths of the cases you hear about are fakes.”

I thought, yeah, in 1923 that may have sounded like a solid explanation, but now??? Jeez, people get abducted all the time.

It is possible that Hammett himself made the change for Including Murder, though I suspect it wouldn’t have occurred to him by that time. Someone can check it out in the archives and let people know. By the 1930s kidnapping was rampant — Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde got in on the action — so if Hammett ever looked back at his pulp stories it’s likely he might have made the change by then.

Terry Zobeck indicates that in Hammett’s other major yarn about kidnapping — “Death and Company” — Hammett himself may have contributed to updating the references to kidnapping as the story went into newspaper reprints, to keep it current. At this moment, it is impossible to say with certainty, but I think Hammett would have agreed completely with whoever blue-penciled one of the Op’s less believable explanations.

You don’t want your detective to look like a sap.

Now, I’ll hand this little tribute over to Terry Zobeck himself, and return later with more on the subject of being kidnapped off the streets of the big city.

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