Hammett on Hammett: The Case of the Mystery Editor

Maxwell Perkins coached and encouraged F. Scott Fitzgerald. Gordon Lish often slashed more than half of Raymond Carver’s stories. Thanks to letters, journals, and literary scholars, readers can see the trajectories of manuscripts from draft to printed page. Not just in prose, but also in poetry. What about the author who self-edits his or her own work?

Readers are not inclined to think of editing as a crime scene, but there are fingerprints everywhere, at least with current software technology. Track Changes, for instance, leaves a digital fingerprint for every keystroke. It’s all there: Who did What, When and Where, although the Whys are not readily apparent unless the editor uses Comments. But what kind of editing are we talking about – copy, proofing, continuity, or line editing?

dash apartmentLet’s look at The Maltese Falcon and do some sleuthing. Whether it was Sam Spade or the Continental Op, Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) changed crime fiction. He wrote a slew of short stories, five novels, and screenplays until he ran afoul of Senator Joe McCarthy and paid dearly for his idealism. He also edited his own work.

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Richard Layman and Otto Penzler stated that there are over 2,000 variants between the Black Mask and LoA versions of The Maltese Falcon. Penzler reprinted the serialized novel, as it appeared in print in The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2012).

In Notes on the Text, the LoA editors claimed that Hammett kept most of his original language (not true, as we will soon see) and Knopf simply had corrected typographical errors. LoA lists those errors, but they fall significantly short of 2,000.

Let us examine the scene.

The Body: The Maltese Falcon.

Time frame: The Maltese Falcon appeared serialized in Black Mask, from September 1929 to January 1930. Knopf published an edition on Valentine’s Day, 1930. Hammett’s first volume from Library of America (LoA), using the Knopf edition, was published in 1934, securing his place in American letters.

Suspect 1: Joseph Shaw, the editor at Black Mask. He claims to have edited and entitled chapters for Maltese for serial publication.

Suspect 2: Harry Block, the editor at Knopf. He sent Hammett requests for changes, particularly to the novel’s sexual content.

Suspect 3: Dashiell Hammett. The author claims to have agreed to Shaw’s copy edits, to Knopf’s proofing for typographical errors and, despite Block’s request to excise scandalous content, kept most of the original language, knowing that he was testing morality.

Charge: Hammett had both copyedited and revised Falcon for Knopf.

Evidence: If you know either the novel or the film version with Humphrey Bogart, you’ll recognize that the passage below is the confrontation scene between Sam Spade and Brigid O’Shaugnessey. What kind of edits do we see here?

Strikethroughs are deletions from original Black Mask for the LoA edition.

Bold text indicates additions found in the definitive Maltese Falcon.

“Listen. This isn’t a damned bit of good. You’ll never understand me, but I’ll try once more, and then we’ll give it up. In my part of the world when your partner’s killed you’re supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens that were in the detective business. Well, when one of your employees, or a partner, or anybody connected with your detective business is killed, it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all around, bad for that one agency, and bad for every detective – bad all around. Third, I’m a detective, and expecting me to run any criminal down and then let him go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and then let it go. It can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done, but it’s not the natural thing.”

“But –”

(Black Mask Maltese Falcon, Penzler page 215)

“Listen. This isn’t a damned bit of good. You’ll never understand me, but I’ll try once more and then we’ll give it up. Listen. When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all around bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere. Third, I’m a detective and expecting me to run criminals down and then let them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go, It can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done, but it’s not the natural thing. The only way I could have let it go was by letting Gutman and Cario and the kid go. That’s–

“You’re not serious,” she said. “You don’t expect me to think that these things you’re saying are sufficient reason for sending me to the–”

(Knopf 1930 edition and Library of America, pages 581-82)

Is deleting a comma, a conjunction, a dash, correcting spelling mistakes copyedits or proofreading marks from Block’s staff? If so, it stands to reason that Shaw’s editors may have rushed Falcon to print and didn’t catch all the typos.

As you can see phrases were rearranged for flow. Deleting “employees, or a partner, or anybody connected with your detective business” eliminates wordiness. The addition of “organization” not only flows better, but it bolsters Spade’s argument for ethical action. Again, inconclusive whether these edits are Block and his staff. I suspect that Hammett was proofreading Block’s galley when he decided to edit it. The result is a revision.

The additional lines in blue were not in Black Mask. The missing word is “gallows.” The revision packs a wallop. I’ll bet that this revision comes from Hammett himself.

This is not the only revision in Falcon. There are more. Hammett added profanity in describing his Miles Archer and he revised scenes with Joe Cairo and Gutman to create a leaner and spicier final version of The Maltese Falcon. Hammett edited Hammett.

Verdict:

Shaw copyedited Hammett, as they went to press.Block copyedited and proofed Shaw’s 5-part manuscript.

Block copyedited and proofed Shaw’s 5-part manuscript.

Hammett copyedited, proofread and revised Block and himself.

Summary:

Does the evidence support the verdict?

I know that in editing my own work I can’t see missed words and punctuation. I’m too close to the text. I trust my editor to catch the and finesse the lumps out of the carpet. I have another person read for continuity. Did my protagonist enter and leave the room with the same color shoes? With proofreading, I rely on printed copy because it is either on the page or it isn’t. However, fixes from all of my editors will often give me copy in which I might see something new, and I’ll do small revisions to improve characterization and plotting.

What does this example teach you about editing your own work?

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About gabrielswharf

gabriel’s wharf is a blog on the random thoughts and writings of author Gabriel Valjan. Ronan Bennett short-listed Gabriel for the 2010 Fish Short Story Prize and he won the inaugural Lit Bits Contest at ZOUCH. His stories continue to appear online and in print journals. Winter Goose Publishing publishes his Roma Series: Book 1, Roma, Underground (February 2012), Book 2, Wasp’s Nest (November 2012), and Book 3, Threading the Needle (October 2013). Books 4, Turning to Stone and 5, Corporate Citizen are scheduled for 2015. His novels are available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble in trade-paperback and in e-book for Kindle and Nook. Rachel Anderson of RMA Publicity is his publicist. His website is at http://www.gabrielvaljan.com
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