Of Hammett’s five novels, this one has long had the lowest reputation—certainly in the view of the author himself, and by a fairly wide margin among most critics who celebrate his literary achievement overall. Yet the book, which Hammett churned out quickly and as a matter of financial exigency, offers plenty of vintage pulpy charm. More important, it stands as the ur-text for a prominent subgenre of detective fiction.
The story begins modestly, as if it came from one of the more desiccated leaves of a private eye’s casebook. Then it spirals manically into a strange, labyrinthine affair. The Continental Op, working on behalf of a jeweler’s insurance company, visits the San Francisco home of an inventor named Edgar Leggett. Some diamonds in Leggett’s possession have gone missing, and the Op starts chatting up people in the Leggett milieu who might know something about their whereabouts. The household includes the inventor’s wife, Alice, and his daughter, Gabrielle, and associates of the family include Eric Collinson, a suitor of Gabrielle, and Owen Fitzstephan, a writer who happens to know both the Leggett paterfamilias and the Op. A bit of poking around reveals to the Op that the apparent jewel theft is merely the tip of a highly toxic iceberg. The focus of investigative activity extends from the Leggett home to the Temple of the Holy Grail, the site of a sham religion that has drawn Gabrielle into its orbit, and then to an oceanside town called Quesada, where Gabrielle lands after a series of family tragedies. Many corpses accumulate along the way, and the only factor that appears to link these deaths is Gabrielle. A possible explanation for all of this violence—though not one that the Op accepts—is a curse that supposedly afflicts the Dain family, from which Gabrielle and her mother descend.
Undergirding the novel is a narrative template that has more solidity than the looping (and sometimes loopy) contours of the case at hand. It’s a template that Raymond Chandler would use in part and on occasion, that Ross Macdonald would use in full and repeatedly, and that other practitioners of the California school of private eye writing would use as a birthright. Although the main venue for tales of this kind would shift from the northern part of the Golden State to the southern part, the defining elements of the template have been roughly constant: A private agent, initially brought in to resolve a fairly routine matter, becomes enmeshed in the coils of a dysfunctional family with a hidden, horrible past. His job (this detective is almost always a man) ends up requiring him to trace the accursed lineage of that family, and a question that frequently hangs over his work is whether the sins of self-indulgent parents will be visited upon their children. Common symptoms of family disarray include drug addiction, deviant sexuality, and participation in a pseudo-religious cult. (Such cults, of course, are known to find ample recruits among California’s insecurely rooted population.) In sorting through these pathologies, the detective functions less as an investigator than as a therapist; the true object of his quest is not truth or even justice, but social reparation and psychic absolution.
In a story of this type, much depends on the inclusion of a detective hero who can support the weight of a melodramatic and emotionally laden plot. The Op, a journeyman operative with the Continental Detective Agency who also appeared in Red Harvest and dozens of short works, meets that difficult test. His lack of a name in no way lessens the sense of presence that he confers on the Leggett affair—both as a professional sleuth and as the narrator of record. Indeed, the Op’s blunt, just-the-facts persona serves as an effective counterpoint to the bizarre, over-the-top sequence of events that he describes. His jaded response to the often ridiculous particulars of the case goes far in helping maintain the reader’s willing (and sometimes merely grudging) suspension of disbelief. What’s more, the Op gets a chance to display a softer, more human aspect of his hardboiled sensibility when he pauses his investigation to rescue one character from a dire personal fate. The temporary shift in his role from crimefighter to caretaker marks a surprising turn that works surprisingly well.
But the whole thing goes awry in the closing chapters, when the time comes for the Op to reveal and explain who did the murders, and how, and why. Uncharacteristically, Hammett handles this moment in a hectic and compressed manner, thus draining the denouement of both clarity and impact. This failing is all the more lamentable because Hammett manages the runup to the end quite deftly, and because he has engineered a grand twist that should carry a real wallop. Perhaps, in opting to explore the compassionate side of his knightly hero, the author had lost interest in the side of his hero that involves solving riddles and slaying dragons.