Wednesday, October 15, 2008

"Bodies Piled Up" by Dashiell Hammett

In a recent blog review of the December issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, one commenter wrote that he didn’t even realize EQMM was still being published. Such is the state of mainstream short mystery fiction that even avid mystery readers don’t know about EQMM or its sister, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Well, EQMM is still being published, albeit in a smaller format. I have been an infrequent reader these past years but the editors at EQMM started something in 2008 that will certainly bring more readers who, like me, loved the hard-boiled material.

Starting with the January 2008 issue, EQMM features reprinted stories from the old Black Mask Magazine and new stories written in the same style. Black Mask was one of the most popular pulp magazines of the 1920s and many of the names we now associate with pulp and crime fiction—Erle Stanley Gardner, Carroll John Daly, Leslie Charteris, Raymond Chandler, and other—got their start in Black Mask. But EQMM decided to begin their new series with the most popular writer to emerge from the pages of Black Mask, Dashiell Hammett.

“Bodies Piled Up” is a 1923 Continental-Op story set in a San Francisco hotel. The Continental-Op is a nameless detective who, according to Thrilling Detective, is the reason we have the PI in the form he is now in. This story begins with the Continental-Op working a shift at the Montgomery Hotel, filling in until the hotel owners can find a replacement for the detective they fired for drunkenness. There is a problem in room 906 and the Op and the assistant manager go up and see what’s what. The maid is standing in the room, transfixed by a thin line of blood snaking out from under a closet door. The Op opens the door and a body falls out. Then another. And a third. The main fainted. And the Op has a mystery on his hands.

Having recently read two novels (here and here) by Erle Stanley Gardner, one of the masters of the puzzle in detective fiction, I was impressed by Hammett’s ability to present the facts as the Op saw them. This is not some rote, boring, long-winded recitation of data. No, Hammett punches you in the gut with short, blunt sentences that gives you all you need to know. His investigation leads to three men, one of whom registered under a false name. Once the Op figured out who the man was, he decided to set a trap for him. In disguise, the Op meets with the suspect. Unfortunately for the Op, the suspect doesn’t just want to chat. He has a gun and wants to take out the man (Cudner) the Continental-Op is supposed to be. Then, the fun begins as the real Cudner shows up.

In a brisk fifteen pages, Hammett gives us dead bodies, a murder mystery, a gun fight, and a resolution, all with clean, precise hard-boiled prose. “Bodies Piled Up” is quite entertaining and a high standard for all future Black Mask stories.

Note: the August issue features a new story by the late Mickey Spillane.

“Bodies Piled Up,” by Dashiell Hammett, published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, January 2008.

To subscribe to EQMM or AHMM, visit The Mystery Place. Starting in 2009, I'm going to subscribe again.


pattinase (abbott) said...

It took me five bookstores to find one and that includes a mystery bookstore. Very sad.

August West said...

Scott: If you get hooked on that fat, nameless agency operative, you will want to read the 1929 novel "Red Harvest." In it the OP plays both sides of the street, to clean up a town full of greed and corruption. It's a formula that authors have copied ever since. Contains one of the best opening paragraphs in any mystery story:

"I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn't think anything of what he had done to the city's name. Later I heard men who could manage their r's give it the same pronunciation. I still didn't see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves' word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better."

Scott D. Parker said...


In fact, I have read Red Harvest. On audio, no less. I enjoyed it. I read it b/c of its influence on "Yojimbo" and "A Fistful of Dollars."

Now, since it features the Op, I'm looking out for more stories with him in it. It seems strange that he is never named. We wouldn't get away with that nowadays. Come to think of it, we can't get away with a lot of what the old guys used to.

August West said...

Scott: You got me interested again in the portly OP. I'm gonna dig out the two DELL paperbacks I have that contain the collections of some of the short stories and give a few of them a read this weekend.

This as a fine posting.