Thursday, April 12, 2012

“This King Business”: A Dashiell Hammett Story Restored

Guest blog post by Terry Zobeck, a Hammett collector who was 16 when he first read The Maltese Falcon.

While Dashiell Hammett’s five novels rightfully are celebrated as his major legacy, his short stories also deserve praise and preservation. Library of America series volume #125, Crime Stories & Other Writings, collect 24 of his best, including 20 of the 28 tales featuring the Continental Op, Hammett’s unnamed, middle-aged, overweight, tenacious man-hunter.

In keeping with Library of America textual policy, all the texts on which the 2001 volume were based were original magazine appearances. All, that is, except for “This King Business,” an Op adventure first published in the January 1928 issue of the pulp Mystery Stories.

According to the Note on the Texts “no copy is known to be extant,” so The Library of America had to rely upon the version that appeared in the collection The Creeping Siamese (1950), edited by Frederic Dannay, who was better known as “Ellery Queen.” In reprinting these stories, Dannay often took out his blue pencil, chopping sentences and whole paragraphs. He even re-titled some stories on no authority but his own.

“This King Business” happens to be one of the more egregious examples of Dannay’s editing. I know, because in 2008 I purchased a copy of the original pulp—at a steep price. But what could be more appealing to a Hammett collector than to have the only known original copy of one of his stories? (I’ve since learned of the existence of two other copies).

Last May, I did a side-by-side comparison of the two texts, and was surprised by the extent of Dannay’s edits. I documented 83 changes, some small, others more significant. Several of the latter come during the climax, and affect (for the worse, in my view) the mood and tone of the story. Around this time I was introduced to Don Herron, the Hammett scholar and guide of the Dashiell Hammett Tour in San Francisco, whose website, Up and Down These Mean Streets, is devoted to all things hardboiled. He suggested I do a guest blog post to restore Hammett’s original text. I agreed, and have since done the same for a dozen more stories for which Hammett’s texts are not available currently.

Then it occurred to me that The Library of America might be interested in my discovery. I received an email almost immediately asking if I could provide a copy of the story so that they could include the restored text in the next printing of the volume. My daughter and I carefully photographed the pages of the fragile pulp and sent them off.

The latest printing of The Library of America’s Crime Stories & Other Writings (scheduled to arrive from the printer later this month) now contains the original version of “This King Business.” As a collector and admirer of Hammett’s work, I am pleased to have played a small part in restoring to print the definitive text for one of Hammett’s best stories. And I am especially impressed by The Library of America’s quick decision to go to the expense and trouble of getting it right. This time, nothing but the texts as Hammett wrote them.

Also of Interest:

1 comment:

  1. Good and important work, Terry. Fred Dannay did wonderful things for the genre (and with Manny Lee wrote some fine books and stories) but his editorial ego was boundless, and he put his thumb in a lot of pies. His title changes were often downright dumb; my first sale to him, "A Bad Night for Burglars," he changed to "Gentlemen's Agreement"—a fine title, but Laura Z. Hobson had used it on a bestseller, and there was a film, and— Well. A year or two later he took a story of mine about a man who gets shot,has a near=death experience, then revives and solves his own murder. "And Miles to Go Before I Sleep," I called it; Fred changed that to "Life After Life"—then the title of a bestselling nonfiction book on after-death experiences. We owe Fred Dannay a lot, not excluding a swift kick in the pants.

    Lawrence Block

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