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In Spite of Flaws, Hammett's Second Novel Is A Winner
on 10 September 2003
Today, of course, Dashiell Hammett's reputation rests largely on the legendary novel THE MALTESE FALCON, but this does not mean that his other work isn't worth a look, and THE DAIN CURSE is a case in point: tightly written in a merciless tone, Hammett's second novel clearly sets the stage for much that was to follow.
Hammett first made his reputation as a pulp magazine author, churning out a series of short stories in a lean, mean prose that drew numerous fans and built critical attention. One of the most popular characters of his short story work was known as "the Continental Op"--an insurance detective ("Op" being short for "operative") whose various adventures would ultimately form the basis for this, Hammett's second novel-length effort.
Although some will disagree, I personally consider THE DAIN CURSE an noticeable improvement over Hammett's first novel, RED HARVEST. Like most of Hammett's work, both works are noteable for their hard-hitting prose, both offer convoluted plots, and both provide us with archetypical characterizations--but where I find RED HARVEST a strangely flat and slightly up-hill read, THE DAIN CURSE hooks you with the first few pages and holds your attention with ease throughout the entire course of the novel.
The story is, as previously stated, convoluted. The Op is called in to investigate stolen diamonds--but strangely enough, these diamonds are not really precious: they are imperfect stones loaned by a jeweler to scientist/artist Leggett, who experiments with them in an effort to improve their quality. Leggett seems as surprised as everyone that any one would actually go to the trouble of stealing them--but suddenly the tone of the characters shift, and those who first welcomed the investigation seem to resist it while those who originally opposed it seem to encourage it. Clearly, there is something more going on than a simple burglary, and it short order it becomes clear that the "something" is murder.
While THE DAIN CURSE is an entertaining read, it does have its flaws--and they are flaws that Hammett would take some pains to correct in his future work. Given that the novel is largely based on various short stories Hammett had previously written, it is hardly surprising that the movement of the plot has an episodic feel; there are actually points in the book where you feel the story has ended long before you've run out of pages, only to have Hammett spin off the plot into an unexpected direction with a somewhat awkward joining of the elements involved. The characters also tend to be inconsistent, and while this actually forms part of the plotline, Hammett does not entirely succeed in carrying off the effect.
Perhaps the single most oft-leveled accusation against the novel is that its heroine proves a largely unsympathetic character who lacks either the power of THE MALTESE FALCON'S perfidious Bridgett or the snap and spark of THE THIN MAN'S Nora. For myself, I did not find this the major flaw that so many others do; what is an issue, however, is the very limited attention Hammett offers the character in the first third of the novel, where she reads as a minor supporting character--and rather than build the role in a way that places her front and center, Hammett simply shifts gears and suddenly puts her at the forefront. The result is an extremely awkward transition that undercuts one's suspension of disbelief.
But whatever its flaws, THE DAIN CURSE is a truly entertaining read, written in the developing Hammett style that would peak with THE MALTESE FALCON. It may in some respects be a "developmental" work, but it is no less the worse for that, easily outclassing the vast majority of Hammett imitators that sprang up as the author rose to fame. Recommended to fans of the classic hard-boiled fiction school.
--GFT (Amazon.com Reviewer)--