Monday, August 5, 2013

In which our hero finds the grail

”Hello. . . . Yes, speaking. . . . Dead? . . . Yes. . . . Fifteen minutes. Thanks.”

A switch clicked and a white bowl hung on three gilded chains from the ceiling's center filled the room with light. Spade, barefooted in green and white pajamas, sat on the side of his bed. He scowled at the telephone on the table while his hands took from beside it a packet of brown papers and a sack of Bull Durham tobacco.

Cold steamy air blew in through two open windows, bringing with it half a dozen times a minute the Alcatraz foghorn's dull moaning. A tinny alarm-clock, insecurely mounted on a corner of Duke's Celebrated Criminal Cases of America – face down on the table – held its hands at five minutes past two.

Dashiell Hammett,
The Maltese Falcon (1930)
The boy would not eat. Cairo took a cup of coffee. The girl, Gutman, and Spade ate the scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, and marmalade she had prepared, and drank two cups of coffee apiece. Then they settled down to wait the rest of the night through.

Gutman smoked a cigar and read Celebrated Criminal Cases of America, now and then chuckling over or commenting on the parts of its contents that amused him. Cairo nursed his mouth and sulked on his end of the sofa. The boy sat with his head in his hands until a little after four o'clock. Then he lay down with his feet toward Cairo, turned his face to the window, and went to sleep Brigid O'Shaughnessy, in the armchair, dozed, listened to the fat man's comments, and carried on wide-spaced desultory conversations with Spade.

Spade rolled and smoked cigarettes and moved, without fidgeting or nervousness, around the room.

Dashiell Hammett,
The Maltese Falcon (1930)
He moved a little closer to me. “It's things like that I don't know. I'm so horribly young I haven't had a chance to – Mr. Charles, if you're too busy or don't want to, I hope you'll say so, but I'd appreciate it very much if you'd let me talk to you sometime when there aren't a lot of people around to interrupt us. There are so many things I'd like to ask you, things I don't know anyone else could tell me and–"

“I'm not so sure about that,” I said, “but I'll be glad to try any time you want.”

“You really don't mind? You're not just being polite?”

“No, I mean it, only I'm not sure you'll get as much help as you expect. It depends on what you want to know.”

“Well, things like cannibalism,” he said. “I don't mean in places like Africa and New Guinea – in the United States, say. Is there much of it?”

“Not nowadays. Not that I know of.”

“Then there was once?”

“I don't know how much, but it happened now and then before the country was completely settled. Wait a minute: I'll give you a sample.” I went over to the bookcase and got the copy of Duke's Celebrated Criminal Cases of America that Nora had picked up in a second-hand book store, found the place I wanted, and gave it to him. “It's only three or four pages.”
Alfred G. Packer, The “Maneater,” Who Murdered His Five Companions in the Mountains of Colorado, Ate Their Bodies and Stole Their Money.

In the fall of 1873 a party of twenty daring men left Salt Lake City, Utah, to prospect in the San Juan country. Having heard glowing accounts of the fortunes to be made, they were light-hearted and full of hope as they started on their journey, but as the weeks rolled by they grew despondent. The further they proceeded, the less inviting appeared the country, and they finally became desperate when it appeared that their only reward would be starvation and death. [...]
Gilbert, book in hand, came over to us. He seemed disappointed in the story I had given him. “It's very interesting,” he said, “but if you know what I mean, it's not a pathological case.” He put an arm around his sister's waist. “It was more a matter of that or starving.”

Dashiell Hammett,
The Thin Man (1934)

The bar was quiet. The bartender had helped me out before, and I asked him what he knew about Duke's Celebrated Criminal Cases of America.

He looked at me for a moment, then glanced sideways at the old guy sitting next to me scowling at his Keno ticket. With the slightest tip of his head, he walked down to the other end of the bar. I picked up my drink and followed him.

Back in the 1930s, I said, Dashiell Hammett's detectives always seemed to have a copy of it sitting around nearby. Now, librarians just stare at me like I'm goofy when I ask them about it. What's the story? Is it real, or just Hammett's idea of a joke?

He studied me, weighing. "That's a funny thing just to be asking about," he said after a bit.

I shrugged, spinning a silver dollar on the bar. You know me, I said. I'm a funny guy.

He eyed the silver dollar, then reached under the bar and pulled out something wrapped in a clean bar towel, placing it carefully in front of me. It was a softbound book, maybe six inches by nine, at least three inches thick, printed on thin paper, probably six or seven hundred pages. I looked at him. He nodded.

It was the dingus. I carefully opened it to the title page:
CELEBRATED CRIMINAL CASES OF AMERICA, by Thomas S. Duke, Captain of Police, San Francisco. Published with the Approval of the Honorable Board of Police Commissioners of San Francisco. San Francisco, Cal. The James H. Barry Company, 1910.
San Francisco. That clicked; Two of Hammett's best known characters, Sam Spade and Nick Charles, had worked there. So did the Continental Op, though I don't remember him ever flashing a copy of Duke. I could always chase that down later. I ran my eye down the table of contents:
  • Page 91: Murder of Addie Gilmour, Whose Head Was Found in the Bay 

  • Page 131: Frank Miller, Who Enticed a Tramp into the Home of Mr. Franklin and Then Killed Him, Claiming He Was a Burglar 

  • Page 296: Operations of the Fiendish Harry Tracey and Dave Merrill in Oregon and Washington 

  • Page 348: The Hideous Murders Committed at the Bender's Tavern in Kansas 

  • Page 421: Adolph Leutgert, Who Murdered His Wife and Dissolved Her Body in a Vat in Chicago 

  • Page 568: The Sensational Murder of the Beautiful and Accomplished, But Wayward, Helen Jewett, in New York 

And on page 307:  Alfred G. Packer, Who Murdered Five Fellow Prospectors in Colorado, Stole Their Money, and Ate Their Flesh.

Bingo. Later, I could find out why there were different versions of the chapter title. Right now, I looked up at the bartender. This, I said, is the goods.

He nodded, faintly and judiciously. "It is," he said, "the goods. You can borrow it when I'm done."

I left the silver dollar on the bar and walked out.

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