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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Dain Curse

Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse feels like six novels jammed into one, not sure which it really wants to be. This is a big surprise coming from Hammett, whose prose is so renowned for its spare, tight, suspenseful nature. Hammett’s novels are usually grounded in psychologically real characters in a violent world, and while there is violence a plenty in The Dain Curse, Hammett indulges in such outlandish plot elements that the result is, ironically, quite dull.

The novel starts as a straight detective novel. Hammett’s anonymous Continental Op arrives on scene at a diamond robbery as an employee of the insurance company on the hook for their policy. After becoming convinced that the job is an inside one, the scientist entrusted with the diamonds turns up dead of an apparent suicide.

It is at this point that the book goes off the rails, not always troublingly so, but still. First it veers into family melodrama, as deep, dark secrets are revealed about the dead man and his life. Then it becomes an occult narrative as the action shifts to a kooky California cult. Then it becomes a modern western, set in a Northern California ghost town. There are more shifts in store, but they would involve spoilers.

It’s a confusing book to read in spurts, since you can close one kind of story and pick up a completely different one. The Op is an appealing hard-boiled detective, but he seems out of place in a lot of these elements. Also, by way of warning, there is an uncomfortable level of racism in this book, which is technically accurate to the period but does little to raise the literary value of the text.

I’m a huge Hammett fan, but this is not in his top shelf. It still beats the crap out of Philo Vance, though.

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