“But that’s the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”
–From The Maltese Falcon, conclusion of “The Flitcraft Parable” (italics mine)
“Did it ever occur to you that everybody is more or less afraid of nearly everything, and that courage isn’t a damned thing but a habit of not dodging things because you’re afraid of them?”
–From “So I Shot Him” (italics mine)
Fifty years after his death, The Strand Magazine has just published a short story by Dashiell Hammett, “So I Shot Him.” As one would expect, when a quality short story appears from one of the great hard-boiled writers, “So I Shot Him” is getting a fair share of mainstream publicity, including a segment on NPR. It is a fairly short story in terms of length—not much longer than well-known “The Flitcraft Parable” in The Maltese Falcon. And unlike many “lost” works—both long and short—that appear long after the death of a major artist, “So I Shot Him” is not a fragment from an unfinished novel nor a rough draft of a story still seeking its final form. Rather, it is a compact gem of a story that feels fully crafted and complete. I definitely encourage fans of Hammett to seek out this story in the current print issue of The Strand Magazine. “So I Shot Him” reminds me of the underlying sensibility of “The Flitcraft Parable.” The newly published story, like “The Flitcraft Parable,” is a hard-nosed, noir-encrusted meditation on two major tensions in modern life: not dodging one’s responsibilities and confronting one’s fears.
The story’s title also supplies its opening line: “So I shot him.” It helps establish the essential, fatal agency of the piece, as this “I” is identified as a shady, perhaps criminal, promoter named Rainey. Typical of Hammett, our portrait of Rainey emerges through his visible actions and also through the first-hand observations of the story’s unnamed narrator. The jolting statement that opens the story is quickly clarified for the reader: Rainey did not shoot a person but rather an animal. Rainey shot his dog because the dog was “cat-shy,” and in Rainey’s worldview that is unacceptable and required an extreme solution. As he tells the three people in his presence: “What good is a dog, or a man, that’s afraid of things?” The story hinges on what seems to be idle banter between Rainey and his three compatriots (Linn, Metcalf, and a narrator) discussing how best to address their fears, and Rainey’s musings on the topic seem to anticipate FDR’s famous saying “the only thing to fear is fear itself.” It becomes clear that Rainey believes that a modern man of action should have no fear except of pain or death. The crux of the remaining narrative action rests on Linn’s personal admission that he has hydrophobia, or a fear of water.
Since the story is quite short, I won’t go through the rest of the narrative details. But Rainey comes up with an all-or-nothing way to fix Linn’s fear of water that is, in its way, just as extreme as his solution for a “cat-shy” dog. What keeps the reader’s interest humming along is that Hammett is expert at leaving the reader wondering about what is happening at the margins of his story. Hammett’s narrator here supplies just enough clues to make us want to read more deeply into Rainey and Linn’s actions and reactions. Yet we only have partial information from a restricted point of view, though the clues we do have are tantalizing glimpses that more may be going on than is being shared with us.
Andrew Gulli, editor of The Strand Magazine, does a great service to lovers of hard-boiled writing by locating this unpublished manuscript at the Harry Ransom Center’s Archive at the University of Texas. You can read more about Gulli’s archival investigations at the Ransom Center here as well as learn that there are more unpublished stories by Hammett in those archives. I hope some more stories find the light of day in The Strand Magazine.
Gulli says that “So I Shot Him” is both vintage Hammett and not vintage Hammett: “Vintage in that you have the great vivid characterization that Dashiell Hammett is so famous for. The terse dialogue, and the great tension that he ratchets up. But it’s not vintage in that there’s a lot of psychological elements to it. There’s also even a bit of a literary feel.” I don’t completely disagree with Gulli’s assessment, but I think that Gulli somewhat minimizes other writings where Hammett does take a psychological, literary approach, as in aforementioned “The Flitcraft Parable.” I particularly like the nuanced semantic sentiments generated by the negated phrases, “not falling” and “not dodging.” In both stories, the simple inclusion of the word “not” forces us to pause, consider, and even re-read what is both being said and unsaid.