Sinister Cinema: “Game Over, Man! Game Over. . . .”

Woke today to the news that Bill Paxton has died from complications from surgery. If you like action movies, a favorite of everybody.

From his doomed punk rocker in The Terminator/radio operator in Commando/ goofy Casanova in True Lies — instant Silver Screen immortality as Hudson in Aliens — part of James Cameron’s rep company when it counted.

Could anyone else do “wiseass” as well?

No, I don’t think so.

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Hammett: Valentine Says Beat It

Eighty-seven years ago today Knopf released a little novel of romance and murder titled The Maltese Falcon.

You know the story.

You’ve been having an affair with your partner’s wife, and now your partner is dead, and you’re expected to do something about it.

So before you begin your affair with the new skirt in town who did the shooting, you need to tell the widow to beat it. . . .

Sickest Valentine’s Day novel ever.

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Frisco Beat: On the Mean Streets with Fritz and Sam

Don’t think that during my deep hibernation of Xmas/The Onset of Winter I did nothing at all, even if  doing nothing was the prevailing theme.

I remembered that I never polished off the Sherlock Holmes stories decades ago, stopping after the two initial short novels and then the Adventures, Memoirs, Return and of course The Hound. So, finally, I went through His Last Bow and the Casebook, and read the Sherlock parts of The Valley of Fear, skipping the entire section set in America. Whenever Doyle tried an American scene, as in A Study in Scarlet, he isn’t worth reading. But even the least Holmes yarns — and there are several that don’t dazzle — may have some charming insult to Watson’s intelligence or reference to an unrecorded case (Giant Rat of Sumatra and company).

And among other things I got the urge and did a complete reread on the collected ghost stories of M. R. James, always a pleasure. Kind of did it as a Hallowe’en treat, kept going, ended up doing “A Warning to the Curious” as my Xmas ghost story. Good old James is a lot more gnarly than Dickens.

I even hit the mean streets in that period a few times with walks, including a Fritz Leiber Tour by appointment that rounded up no less than seventeen eldritch hikers, though I think only about eight made it all the way to the end after over four brutal hours. The first time the walk was scheduled it got rained out, but the next time, no problemo.

The Fritz Tour even got a write-up by Jim Nelson, if you want to gander the review. Jim gets into the presence of Fritz in the Tenderloin and what it means to him, and keeps going, drawing on encounters with Hammett on page and on the pavement. Check it out.

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Hammett: Here Comes Da Judge!

I was on the horn yesterday with Brian Leno, and thought to say, “Hey, Brian. Want me to tell you something you don’t know?”

Brian didn’t hesitate. “Sure.”

“You know that building on TV they keep showing where the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is deciding stuff?”

“Yeah. . . .”

Like, in the last few days, everyone hasn’t seen that great old building pop up on the screen time after time.

“Forget the judicial stuff. That’s the old Main Post Office in San Francisco, where near the start of the Hammett story ‘The Golden Horseshoe’ the Op is gumshoeing around on a case.”

You’ll see a shot of me above, pointing to the building which stands on the east side of Seventh Street between Mission and Market. In now forty years of leading the Dashiell Hammett Tour, I have never (to the best of my memory) taken any tour group past the building. It is just enough off trail to the other sites I want to get to that it never made the cut.

Which doesn’t mean that it isn’t one of my personal favorite Op sites. For several years after I’d first moved to Frisco, it was still the Main Post Office, and I’d go inside, soak up the atmosphere. Imagine where the short fat detective faked a fall to get a look at some mail pulled from one of the boxes. I don’t care one way or the other about the court (my one prevailing thought is that I’d be bored out of my mind if I was forced to be a judge and sit for hours listening to arguments — that’d be as bad as being forced to go to church), but I was kind of happy they decided to retool the Post Office for the new purpose. Much better than tearing it down.

The exterior, and I’m sure much of the interior, evokes the moment when the Op stalked those hallways in the November 1924 issue of The Black Mask.

And now, like Brian, you know.

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Tour: Oscar Sunday, February 26

I’m not sure how it happens, but I’ve ended up scheduling the first public tour for 2017 for Sunday February 26, meaning I’m bound to miss the start of the Oscar ceremonies. I guess I don’t pay that much attention, since I’ve done it before.

And per my norm, I haven’t seen anything up for the major categories, so it’s no big loss. May as well spend the day wearing down my gumshoes on the mean streets.

So, here’s the deal, simple as I can make it: if you want to do the tour, show up by noon at the “L” sculpture — bring $20 per person to hand over. Be ready to go. The walk takes about four hours, is roughly three miles long.

If it is raining like hell, you don’t have to show up, even if you’ve been wanting to do the tour for years — you can wait for a nicer day. Someone from out of town asked for that date, otherwise I’d be in my lair watching the Oscars.

Also, don’t think that this is your only opportunity. 2017 is the 40 Year Anniversary for The Dashiell Hammett Tour, so I’ll be doing lots more walks as we emerge from the rainy season.

Posted in Film, Tour | Tagged |

Hammett: A Final Jeopardy! Clew for 2016

Noticed that Hammett made the cut for Jeopardy! one more time last year.

December 13. The Double Jeopardy! Round.

Category: Books of the 1930s.

The $1200 clew:

“The title of this book that spawned several movies didn’t refer to its detective hero but to lanky Clyde Wynant.”

That’s basic Hammett trivia 101 for anyone who’d call him or herself a Hammett fan. But none of the contestants rang in, it was too much for them.

(If you’re brand new and don’t know, of course the — really easy — answer is The Thin Man, from 1934.)

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Rediscovered: Lin Carter Provides a Footnote (of Sorts) to “Conan vs. Conantics”

In recent months I’ve been having a fast and furious round of email discussions with Kevin Cook, and I managed to turn him into another huge fan of the excellent San Francisco mystery The Man With My Face by Samuel W. Taylor. After I blurbed it, all he had to do was read it, and pow!

Then we got onto the subject of Karl Edward Wagner and his one paperback novel using the Robert E. Howard character Bran Mak Morn. You’ll find an article from 1980 I wrote on the subject collected in the eBook MegaPack The Dark Barbarian That Towers Over All — in the section “Conan vs. Conantics,” about the so-called “posthumous collaborations” various writers did “with” Howard — or at least under license to utilize his characters.

I don’t think Kevin has the MegaPack, but on the other hand he owns almost all the original books and fanzines the contents appeared in. He read my Mak Morn article when it appeared, but after decades had forgotten that I was the writer. Who else?

To further explain the background of the article I made a copy for Kevin of an all-new afterword I did just for the MegaPack, which mentions the next (and last) paperback novel using a Howard character that Wagner turned out:

I did my best to wade through Wagner’s “Conan” novel The Road of Kings in 1979, but when I got to page 100 and nothing was happening, I gave it up and never went back.

Talk about serendipity. I guess Kevin has been living in or around New York all this time, and that line reminded him of something Lin Carter once said to a group of fans. Carter — in collaboration with L. Sprague de Camp — of course is one of the main subjects of attack in my 1976 essay “Conan vs. Conantics”.

If you don’t know the essay, check it out — if you do, you’ll be interested in this first-hand anecdote from Kevin:

I remember hearing Lin Carter mock his collaboration with de Camp on the novel where Conan becomes King, stating something like, “Army marches here. Army marches there. Nothing happens” — while making stomping noises with his feet.

Wow. I’m pleased to learn after all this time that Carter wasn’t quite the blithering idiot he always impressed me as being.

Posted in Lit, REH | Tagged , , , , , , , |

Hammett: “The Green Elephant”


Terry Zobeck just did an entry in Zobeck: Series Two the other day, but I’m sure Hammett fans are always ready for another one.

Take it away, Terry:


“The Green Elephant” was Hammett’s sixth and final appearance in the pages of The Smart Set, which had begun publication in 1900 with the goal of targeting New York’s social and cultural elite with stories written for and by their peers. The magazine followed the pulp format in appearance, but with more literary-minded content and lacking the garish and sensational covers of the pulps. It reached its heyday under the editorship of H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan (1914-1924). Mencken was the legendary, iconoclastic social and literary critic and journalist from Baltimore (known as “the Sage of Baltimore”); Nathan was one of the leading theatre critics of his day. They were hired in 1908 to write book reviews (Mencken) and theatre reviews (Nathan); by 1914, they were co-editing the magazine.

Hammett’s first appearance in print was “The Parthian Shot,” a miscellaneous piece in the October 1922 issue of The Smart Set. Over the next 12 months he placed five more pieces in the magazine, one short-short (“The Crusader”, August 1923), three articles of which “From the Memoirs of a Private Detective” (March 1923) is the most memorable, and “The Green Elephant” (October 1923), the most substantial piece of the six.

Shortly after this story’s publication, Mencken and Nathan were let go over a satirical piece on the funeral procession of President Warren G. Harding, who they felt deserved the same satirical treatment from them in death as they had given him in life. The piece was pulled from publication (the publisher considered it to be treason) and the following year (1924) the magazine was sold to William Randolph Hearst, who changed the focus of the magazine; it ceased publication in 1930.

“The Green Elephant” is a sardonic tale featuring another of Hammett’s scared-little-man characters. This time around it is Joe Shupe, a small-time crook working the mean streets of Spokane. He possesses no particular criminal skill. As his mentor Doc Haire says:

Making a living on the mace ain’t duck soup! Take half these guys you hear telling the world what wonders they are at puffing boxes, knocking over joints, and the rest of the lays—not a half of ’em makes three meals a day at it! Then what chance has a guy that ain’t got no regular racket, but’s got to trust to luck, got? Huh?

But this day, luck is with Joe. He is in the right place at the right time. While standing idly on the corner he witnesses a heist of cash being transferred by a bank. During the shoot-out the crook who steals the bag with the cash runs toward Joe. The thief is gunned down at Joe’s feet and the bag slides right to Joe “balancing itself as nicely as a boy on skates”.

Joe picks up the bag and escapes to his hotel where he soon learns that the bag is stuffed with “all the money in the world.” He later learns that the bank was robbed of $250,000!

Joe is not the brightest of criminals and what imagination he has soon runs wild. He fears everyone and is terrified of losing the money to the extent that he changes hotels everyday and is afraid to go out except to eat. He eventually leaves Spokane for Seattle. But the change of scenery is of no help. The green elephant weighs so heavily on him he cannot function and becomes physically ill and an emotional wreck. It is a relief to him when he is finally caught and the money taken away.

I’ve always had a soft spot for “The Green Elephant.” I was young when I first read it and thought the twist ending was a delight. The mature me sees that it is minor, albeit amusing, Hammett and I still like it well enough. Doc Haire’s description of criminal skills is wonderful Hammett — my best guess at “puffing boxes” is safe cracking.

Dannay first reprinted the story in the November 1945 issue of EQMM and collected it in Dead Yellow Women in 1947. For such a short story, he made several heavy edits, chopping out substantial sections of several paragraphs. While they don’t interfere with the reader’s ability to enjoy the story, they do detract from Hammett’s intent, and are therefore regrettable. The pure text version of “The Green Elephant” is available in Vince Emery’s Lost Stories (2005).

The 1945 EQMM, however, was not the first time the story was reprinted. That distinction goes to The Smart Set Anthology (1934), edited by Burton Roscoe and Groff Conklin; it is the first appearance of the story in book form and uses the pure text from the magazine. Roscoe was a prominent writer and editor of the time and was friends with both Mencken and Nathan. He also was a long-time fan of The Smart Set, having a complete run of the magazine. He was intimately familiar with its contents and emphasized collecting stories that had not appeared in book form. Oddly, in his lengthy introduction, in which he discusses the merits of many of the authors featured in the anthology, there is no mention of Hammett, who was at the peak of his popularity at the time the book was published. This may be attributed to Roscoe’s somewhat snobbish literary tastes. On the other hand, he correctly picked the two best Hammett pieces from the pages of The Smart Set for his anthology, the current story and “From the Memoirs of a Private Detective,” which also had never appeared in book form at this point.

I’ve followed my usual style of noting the edits: page number, line number, whether it is from the top or bottom of the page, and the edited text; Hammett’s original text that was edited is underlined. The page numbers refer to Dead Yellow Women. The pure text of “The Green Elephant” appears in the Lost Stories.


Page       Line        top/bottom      Text

110         1             top                   in the original Hammett included chapter breaks denoted with Roman numerals; there should be a “I” at the beginning of the text.

110         2             top                   But the time for that next pilgrimage to the shrines of Industry, through which he might reach the comparative paradise of employment, was still some twenty hours away;

110         15           bottom             Joe had not given that a thought; and had his attention been called to it he probably would have been unable to see in it anything but further evidence of the Swede’s unfitness for the possession of money.

111         9             top                   Joe Shupe’s unaccustomed introspection.

111         11           bottom             Joe climbed into the car and found a seat.

112         11           top                   All the money in the world! [should be followed by the chapter break “II”]

112         12           bottom             Mmanilla wrappers [Dannay rightly corrected Hammett’s spelling error].

113         4             top                   a decidedly and humorously padded appearance

113         10           top                   dropped them into the fifth; after which he walked—almost scuttled—for ten minutes, turning corners and slipping through alleys, until he was positive he was not being watched.

114         3             top                   making a large but inconspicuous bundle—laundry, perhaps.

114         14           top                   to the newspaper again, and read the story of the robbery.

114         11           bottom             Or he should drop the bundle? Or someone should bump heavily into it?

114         3             bottom             or to any place at all, for that matter, [should be followed by the chapter break “III”]

115         18           bottom             “Yes,” he said. [should be a separate paragraph]

115         18           bottom             was not going to leave his hand until he had found a securer place for it. So he dozed uncomfortably through the ride over the Cascades, sprawled over to seats in the smoking-car, leaning against the valise.

115         6             bottom             in cautious amounts;:

116         7             top                   thieves in droves; so he put them away in his valise, and thereafter wore his old clothes.


Next time we’ll take a look at what Dannay may have done to “Laughing Masks” from the November 1923 issue of Action Stories.



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Hammett: “Slippery Fingers”


Guess who’s back with another installment of Zobeck: Series Two?

You got it.

And here’s Terry Zobeck:


The other day, Don sent me a link to a piece by Francis M. Nevins on the Mystery File blog that mentions the work we’ve been doing here on These Mean Streets in restoring the pure text of Hammett’s short stories. Seems our work was brought to his attention via several posts by Steve Carper on The Digest Enthusiast, a blog that celebrates the old digest magazines, including those edited by Fred Dannay and featuring Hammett’s work. Carper has posted several articles on Hammett’s appearances in these digests and mentioned our work in a few of them.

It’s been more than a year since my last guest blog — but about a week before Don sent me the link I had begun comparing the pure text of “Slippery Fingers” to Dannay’s edited version. Coincidently, Nevins mentions this story in his recent blog. I know that coincidences aren’t supposed to happen in detective fiction, but in real life they sometimes happen. This is one.

“Slippery Fingers” was one of two stories by Hammett in the October 15, 1923 issue of Black Mask. In my last Series Two guest blog, I dealt with the first story, “Crooked Souls.”

To avoid the appearance of having two “Hammett” stories in a single issue, the editor attributed “Slippery Fingers” to Peter Collinson, the pseudonym that Hammett had used for “Arson Plus” — the first Op story — and other early stories published in Black Mask; although Hammett was to use the penname two more times, “Slippery Fingers” was the last of the Op stories signed with it. Dannay collected the story in Woman in the Dark (1951); the pure text version was collected in Crime Stories and Other Writings (2001).

“Slippery Fingers” was the third Op story to see print. Hammett had not yet perfected his ability to meld his real-life detective experience with an exciting story. Here he builds his story on the alleged ability to forge fingerprints to hide the identity of the criminal. It is a weak plot and Hammett telegraphs the centrality of the fingerprint dodge to the solution of the crime too many times.

Hammett was obviously aware that readers might doubt the credibility of his method for forging fingerprints since the same issue of Black Mask contained a letter from him attempting to demonstrate its feasibility.

By 1923, the use of fingerprints in criminal investigations had been in wide use in the United States for about 20 years. The thought that criminals could forge prints and thereby circumvent justice was of great concern to law enforcement and the courts. Several methods were proposed, most of which involved making a cast of the fingers of a donor whose prints were not on file with the authorities and using that cast to leave prints to misdirect the police.

A recent book chapter by Champod and Espinoza (2010) reviews the history of claims of forged prints and discusses the various proposed methods and their limitations, including metal plate etching, the method chosen by Hammett’s villain. The unique (and suspect) aspect of Hammett’s method is transferring the forged prints to the criminal’s fingers via a gelatin.

The bottom line is that if such methods of forgery were easily executable by criminals and difficult to detect by forensic experts, fingerprints would have been discredited as reliable evidence in the courts decades ago. They haven’t.

The most important aspect of Hammett’s letter in the same issue is that he clearly identifies himself as the author of “Slippery Fingers,” thus exposing the Collinson pseudonym.

I’ve followed my usual style of noting the edits: page number, line number, whether it is from the top or bottom of the page, and the edited text; Hammett’s original text is underlined.  The page numbers refer to Woman in the Dark.  To just read the pure text of “Slippery Fingers,” look to Library of America’s Crime Stories.


Page       Line        top/bottom      Text

29           4             top                   but I’ll have to have the whole story

29           15           top                   best poker player west of Chicago. He was a cool, well-balanced, quick-thinking little man.

29           8             bottom             to have heard anything during the evening night.

30           3             top                   father had drawn ten thousand dollars $10,000

30           9             top                   After “Do you know of any enemies your father had?” should be a separate paragraph: He shook his head.

30           14           bottom             nineteen twelve 1912

32           9             top                   ten thousand dollars $10,000

33           7             top                   for considerable money had been involved in the dispute, and Waldeman was a “mean cuss, for a fact,”

33           18           top                   in the city for a week or 10 days longer.

34           8-7          bottom             Dannay added the year “1922” to each of the dates after the first one and before the last date, which occurred in 1923.

35           10           top                   twelve thousand, five hundred dollars $12,500

35           11           bottom             have him thrown in the can, but I don’t think he will.

36           3             top                   most natural thing in the world—and it was at that—for me to suspect him.

37           4             top                   a chance to turn up his partner, : the owner of the fingers that had smeared blood on the knife, the table, and the door.

37           10           top                   apartment number twenty-seven 27

37           18           bottom             a photographer by trade, with a studio on Market Street.

37           10           bottom             after “Nothing” should be:

“Nothing at all?”

“No, sullenly.”

37           9             bottom             after “No.” should be:

What can you do with a bird like that?

38           3             top                   I got a split lip and kicked shoulder in the scuffle

38           11           bottom             I blurted, my face a nice rosy, red.

38           7             bottom             Clane laughed again, like a crow cawing,

38           6             bottom             Mr. Slick Private Detective?”

40           18           top                   and gave me the ten thousand.  I told him this was the last time I’d ever bother him—I always told him that—it had a good effect on him.

40           1             bottom             letters or telegrams—though they were wrote in careful enough language. Anyway I figured

41           18           bottom             fixed up my hands this morning. That’s my yarn.

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Rediscovered: Arrggghhh. . .

When I was roaming the Internet the other day, browsing memoirs of Ed Gorman (and I just had the memory that during my phone chat with him, Gorman also rushed to the defense of John D. MacDonald, who gets a little roughed-up in my book on Willeford — a couple of generations of paperback writers like Gorman held John Mac up as King of the Paperback, which I wasn’t disputing, all I was saying was that I thought Willeford was an infinitely greater writer), I surfed into one writer’s site and noticed the first blurb he had up in his long list of blurbs came from Publishers Weekly.

From a review I had written.

As I’ve mentioned, I don’t even look at the reviews as they appear — pretty much, I only spot one when it shows up somewhere I happen to look. A website. On the jacket for the next book in the series.

In large part that’s because the wordage often gets changed out in editorial, so I don’t have any great investment in the final product. I do the review, cash the cheque, an author gets some potential publicity out of it, however the review reads, and I figure my job here is done.

But this review had a flashy bit of wording in it that I liked. A novel of the Mob, I called it a goombah gumbo.

When I popped it in, I pointed out that goombah might be too offensive to someone somewhere, but it’s a novel of the Mob, so what the hell, I’d try it. If it was too much, they could delete it.

A change was made. Per the author’s website, what I turned in as “goombah gumbo” hit print as “goombah stew.”


Not as good, at all, at all.

But at least the guy got a useable blurb out of it.

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