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Dashiell Hammett's The Dain Curse (1929): Another Vintage Book Review
Welcome to yet another "vintage" book review. I call it vintage because it is outdated, that is the book has long ago been published. The cat's out of the bag, as it were., But, there may be one or two people out there who haven't read Dashiell Hammett's 1929 novel "The Dain Curse." Incidentally, it was Dashiell Hammett who wrote the novel The Maltese Falcon (1930), which would become one of the most dominant movies of all time, The Maltese Falcon (1941) with Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre.
Hammett also wrote the novel The Thin Man (1934), which became the series of movies starring William Powell and Myrna Loy.
Now then, let me begin by stating that The Dain Curse is a genre mystery novel. That is what it is, and it makes no bones about it; it makes no pretense to be anything else, which is not a criticism. I mention this because I have found that I, personally, have a tendency to become impatient with a mystery (that offers nothing else) that goes on too long (of course "too long" is subjective).
The Dain Curse is not a "crime drama": the goal of the story is to solve the puzzle, all the action is simply directed toward that end; the story does not marinate, if you will, in the juices of passionate emotions or states of mind.
The Dain Curse is not a "literary crime novel": this is because if you remove the crime(s) the entire rationale for the story disappears (and again, this is not a criticism).
The Dain Curse is not "suspense" (psychological or otherwise): for suspense all of the elements must be known, for one thing, which is not the case with mystery. In a mystery where we find out that "the butler" did it, this is not "suspense" because we had never known the butler had anything to do with it until the end. In other words, we had not felt any tension concerning the butler.
The Dain Curse is not a "crime" novel: there is a difference between crime novels and mystery novels; the latter are whodunnits, as is The Dain Curse, and in the former, the criminal is known from the start and the question is: Will he and how will he get away with it?
The Dain Curse is not a "thriller": I suppose there is some overlap between the categories of thriller and suspense, however they are different. Dan Brown ("The Da Vinci Code") writes thrillers. I suppose I would say that the tension with suspense is more psychological, and the tension with thrillers are more physical.
I am going to recommend Dashiell Hammett's The Dain Curse novel for four reasons.
I. Brevity, Pace, and Style
The Dain Curse is short by today's standards (if they can be called "standards"). The edition I checked out from the library is less than one hundred fifty pages. On top of that the reading feels like it is even of shorter length because of the spare, stripped-down (but not austere) prose style he used, like so many writers of the period and in that genre. Therefore one could read it in one sitting if he wanted to.
There is no wasted motion in Hammett's books. The story moves quickly. But this stripped-down prose methodology is harder than it looks, of course, as are most things in life. There are a few modern writers who successfully pull off this, what I would call a Hemmingway-esque stripped-down prose methodology. I'm thinking of John Grisham, the legal fiction writer, the late Mario Puzo (The Godfather). I'm thinking of the late Phillip K. Dick (science fiction). I'm thinking of Cormac McCarthy ("No Country For Old Men" - this was a novel first). I'm thinking of Phillip Roth (literary writer). I'm thinking of Elmore Leonard (crime novelist -- wrote Rum Punch, which became the Quentin Tarantino film Jackie Brown). And so on and so forth.
If you like mysteries The Dain Curse is for you. But beyond that, the story is constructed in a way that I believe we would consider fairly innovative, even today as we speak. The Dain Curse is constructed in a way that I think of as a series of interlocking whodunnits. What I mean by that is there are separate little whodunnit riddles with separate little solutions. So, there are separate crimes each with their own separate guilty party.
These separate whodunnits interlock with each other in several ways; and the main way they interlock is through the centrality of one person to all of them. This person set up all of those situations and all of those people (villains and victims alike) as part of a larger plan for his own gratification. This guy, this ULTIMATE VILLAIN fits the bill of what I would call an emotional and psychological imperialist.
He did what he did for financial motives, the Uber-scheme was a source of money, a "return on investment," you might say. He, THE VILLAIN, did what he did out of his twisted devotion to "love" (emotional imperialism -- he wanted to "get the girl"); and he did what he did because these various machinations, in which he was able to manipulate people, particularly in obscure ways, appealed to his intellectual egoism (psychological imperialism).
The comparison I would make is to say that our ULTIMATE VILLAIN in The Dain Curse is like the soap opera Uber-villain of daytime television today. I would say our guy from The Dain Curse is most comparable to Stefano DiMera of Days of Our Lives. If you know anything of American daytime television and you know the show Days of Our Lives (and Stefano DiMera) you have a fair idea what I'm talking about.
III. Creative Destruction
Though I'm sure its not impossible, I find it very difficult to give a synopsis of the novel without rambling. Somehow, the "interlockinng whodunnit" nature of the story, for me, inhibits or strongly resists encapsulation. If you'll forgive me for resorting to cliches, let me say that The Dain Curse is "a wild ride," "full of chills, spills, and thrills." Sorry, I had to do it.
I think I can say that one of the common features throughout the series of interlocking whodunnits is the precarious situation of Gabrielle Leggett's psychological health. In other words, this adventure (or series of adventures) places the young woman's very sanity at stake. I can also say that there is supposed to be a "curse" upon the Dain family, hence the title The Dain Curse. The "curse" is supposedly responsible for the sudden, violent deaths of people who are close to Dain family members -- Do we begin to see, here, the extent and intensity of the emotional and psychological imperialism of our Uber-villain?
This is a novel you just have to start reading to see what its about. I suppose I can also say that a spiritual cult, established by a husband and wife pair of former actors, is ultimately at th center of this story. You'll note that in the previous paragraph I put the word curse in quotes; I mean by that precisely what you are thinking I might mean by it; but that doesn't make the story any less dangerous, quite the opposite.
By the way, just as an aside, let me just mention that during the late 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and I suppose the 1950s -- whether you're looking at network radio anthologies or novels and short stories -- it was a common feature of "mystery and suspense" tales to have an overlay of what we might call "horror" (ghosts, aliens, voodoo curse, werewolves, zombies, and the like). Now I say OVERLAY because in this types of mystery/suspense stories the solution always revealed that the "horror" elements were not real and were the contrivance of the villain(s) of the story, who, usually out of the profit motive were trying to drive a young woman insane (one who stood to inherit a lot of money but is to lose out if she is judged to be "incompetent"). Sometimes these effects were put on strictly for the benefit of the intended victim while everybody else (the perpetrators) claimed ignorance of what the victim was talking about. What screeching and howling, dear?
But sometimes the effects were put on for a general audience, as is the case in The Dain Curse. Someone is trying to convince Gabrielle Leggett that she is the latest carrier of "The Dain Curse."
As I mentioned, The Dain Curse is a short (bv today's standards), yet quite complex genre mystery novel, whose structure, I think, we would find fairly innovative even today. We would definitely find the technique of what I've called the "horror overlay" innovative, if applied to movies today. I could be wrong, but to my knowledge, the industry still has not mastered (or even attempted) to use the technique of the horror overlay. Either they make a horror movie, in which the extraordinary effects are "real" or they do not.
Now, M. Night Shyalaman did attempt this with The Village (2004). I didn't think it worked, and as I recall it got mixed to negative critical reviews. But thinking back, I believe my objections were largely moral in nature as opposed to technical. I shall have to watch it again sometime.
Anyway, what I want to say is that The Dain Curse is a devastating novel. I might not be able to express this fully, but the resolution of the novel hit me like a George Foreman Sunday Punch, if you will. It took the wind out of me. It was not just the resolution of the mystery. It was not just the "horror overlay" of this story. It was not just that the Uber-villain was someone "you never would have suspected." It is all of these things plus the "fact" that when the villain was "unmasked," as it were the sheer "depths of [his] depravity" were revealed and these depths, in my view, turn out to be extremely shocking and unsettling, and somehow makes one fear for the future..... Or at least that was how I was affected. For any of you familiar with the work of thriller novelist James Patterson, let me say that I was very similarly affected by the Patterson novel Beach Road.
Oh well, I'll just leave it there.
Thank you for reading.