Woman in the Dark by Dashiell Hammett
Woman in the Dark
Woman in the Dark was published in Liberty magazine in three installments on April 8, April 15, and April 22, 1933, and thus appeared after Dashiell Hammett had written all his novels but one. It is very much Hammett: the offbeat names (Brazil), the flat dialogue, the casually callous cops, the upper class bad guys, the decent low lifes (though suspicion of the wealthy was not peculiar to Hammett in 1933). And yet it also shows us Hammett’s view of life in transition.
In The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade recounts a story from his investigative past to Brigid O’Shaughnessy while they await Joel Cairo. Here is an abridged version. The words are Hammett’s, the abridgement, mine.
A man named Flitcraft had left his real-estate-office, in Tacoma, to go to luncheon one day and had never returned…
“He went like that,” Spade said, “like a fist when you open your hand… Well, that was in 1922. In 1927 I was with one of the big detective agencies in Seattle. Mrs. Flitcraft came in and told us somebody had seen a man in Spokane who looked a lot like her husband. I went over there. It was Flitcraft, all right…
“Here’s what had happened to him. Going to lunch he passed an office-building that was being put up—just the skeleton. A beam or something fell eight or ten stories down and smacked the sidewalk alongside him. It brushed pretty close to him, but didn’t touch him, though a piece of the sidewalk was chipped off and flew up and hit his cheek. It only took a piece of skin off, but he still had the scar when I saw him. He rubbed it with his finger—well, affectionately—when he told me about it. He was scared stiff of course, he said, but he was more shocked than really frightened. He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.”
Flitcraft had been a good citizen and a good husband and father, not by any outer compulsion, but simply because he was a man who was most comfortable in step with his surroundings. He had been raised that way. The people he knew were like that.
The life he knew was a clean orderly sane responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things. He, the good citizen-husband-father, could be wiped out between office and restaurant by the accident of a falling beam. He knew then that men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them.
It was not, primarily, the injustice of it that disturbed him: he accepted that after the first shock. What disturbed him was the discovery that in sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step, and not into step, with life. He said he knew before he had gone twenty feet from the fallen beam that he would never know peace again until he had adjusted himself to this new glimpse of life. By the time he had eaten his luncheon he had found his means of adjustment. Life could be ended for him at random by a falling beam: he would change his life at random by simply going away. He loved his family, he said, as much as he supposed was usual, but he knew he was leaving them adequately provided for, and his love for them was not of the sort that would make absence painful.
“He went to Seattle that afternoon,” Spade said, “and from there by boat to San Francisco. For a couple of years he wandered around and then drifted back to the Northwest, and settled in Spokane and got married. His second wife didn’t look like the first, but they were more alike than they were different. You know, the kind of women that play fair games of golf and bridge and like new salad-recipes. He wasn’t sorry for what he had done. It seemed reasonable enough to him. I don’t think he even knew he had settled back naturally into the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma. 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.”
It seems like a time killer, idle talk while waiting. But of course it is not. It is Spade’s motive spring. And it is this vision of an implacably random universe which informs nearly all of Hammett’s work.
The men in this work are like Brazil. Sometimes they are detectives, sometimes not, but they are men who understand life as Spade understood it and expect whatever comes. They are men with few friends and no permanent social context. They have no family. Their allegiance is not to the law, but to something else, call it order, a sense of the way things ought to be. In many ways these men seem to be of the people. Indeed, it is occasionally fashionable to view Hammett’s work from a Marxist perspective—though such a perspective usually requires one to chew more than he’s bitten off. But these men are seemingly immune to the things that compel people. They do not seem afraid of death. They seem able to resist the temptations of money and sex. They seem above pain, and unsurprised by cruelty. They have no illusions. Brazil particularly seems to have muffled himself inside a great calmness, as if nothing much mattered.
Yet like most of Hammett’s men there is passion in him, and it seethes under control only a little past the I-don’t-care. The passion often expresses itself in action rather than in speech. The action is normally violent. Woman in the Dark is more of a love story than Hammett usually wrote.
It appeared two years after he began his lifelong relationship with Lillian Hellman, one year before publication of his final novel, The Thin Man. And the fortuitous ending and implied happily-ever-after for Brazil and Luise is more sentimental than Hammett usually got.
“Hammett’s style,” Raymond Chandler once wrote, “at its worst was as formalized as a page of Marius the Epicurean; at its best it could say almost anything. I believe this style, which does not belong to Hammett or to anybody, but is the American Language (and not even exclusively that anymore), can say things he did not know how to say, or feel the need of saying. In his hands it had no overtones, left no echo, evoked no image beyond a distant hill.” Perhaps Hammett did not know how to write about love or, until now, feel the need of it. To my eye the happy ending seems a bit forced, as if Hammett, in order to bring Brazil and Luise together after all, might have bent his hard-eyed gaze away for a moment. I’m rather glad he did, in truth. I too am sentimental.
But if it worked all right here, it led him into a swamp that nearly drowned him in The Thin Man. It was as if Hammett could not accommodate Spade’s Flitcraftian view of life with his impulse to write, at last, of love.
Whatever was at work in Hammett’s soul, it is so that after The Thin Man in 1934 Hammett never wrote another novel, and when he died in 1961 he left only the fragment of one in progress, Tulip. In it he appeared to be trying to write something different, something that might integrate the conflicting impulses. Perhaps he tired. Perhaps he couldn’t integrate the conflict.
Woman in the Dark is subtitled, after all, “A Novel of Dangerous Romance.” It is a conjunction Hammett never quite tried before. It is a conjunction that works pretty well here. It never worked so well again, but for Hammett, the writer, nothing else did either.
Robert B. Parker
Her right ankle turned under her and she fell. The wind blowing downhill from the south, whipping the trees beside the road, made a whisper of her exclamation and snatched her scarf away into the darkness. She sat up slowly, palms on the gravel pushing her up, and twisted her body sidewise to release the leg bent beneath her.
Her right slipper lay in the road close to her feet. When she put it on she found its heel was missing. She peered around, then began to hunt for the heel, hunting on hands and knees uphill into the wind, wincing a little when her right knee touched the road. Presently she gave it up and tried to break the heel off her left slipper, but could not. She replaced the slipper and rose with her back to the wind, leaning back against the wind’s violence and the road’s steep sloping. Her gown clung to her back, flew fluttering out before her. Hair lashed
At the bottom of the hill there was a wooden bridge, and, a hundred yards beyond, a sign that could not be read in the darkness marked a fork in the road. She halted there, not looking at the sign but around her, shivering now, though the wind had less force than it had had on the hill. Foliage to her left moved to show and hide yellow light. She took the left-hand fork.
In a little while she came to a gap in the bushes beside the road and sufficient light to show a path running off the road through the gap. The light came from the thinly curtained window of a house at the other end of the path.
She went up the path to the door and knocked. When there was no answer she knocked again.
A hoarse, unemotional masculine voice said: “Come in.”
She put her hand on the latch; hesitated. No sound came from within the house. Outside, the wind was noisy everywhere. She knocked once more, gently.
The voice said, exactly as before: “Come in.”
She opened the door. The wind blew it in sharply, her hold on the latch dragging her with it so that she had to cling to the door with both hands to keep from falling. The wind went past her into the room, to balloon curtains and scatter the sheets of a newspaper that had been on a table. She forced the door shut and, still leaning against it, said:
“I am sorry.” She took pains with her words to make them clear notwithstanding her accent.
The man cleaning a pipe at the hearth said: “It’s all right.” His copperish eyes were as impersonal as his hoarse voice. “I’ll be through in a minute.” He did not rise from his chair. The edge of the knife in his hand rasped inside the brier bowl of his pipe.
She left the door and came forward, limping, examining him with perplexed eyes under brows drawn a little together. She was a tall woman and carried herself proudly, for all she was lame and the wind had tousled her hair and the gravel of the road had cut and dirtied her hands and bare arms and the red crepe of her gown.
She said, still taking pains with her words: “I must go to the railroad. I have hurt my ankle on the road. Eh?”
He looked up from his work then. His sallow, heavily featured face, under coarse hair nearly the color of his eyes, was not definitely hostile or friendly. He looked at the woman’s face, at her torn skirt. He did not turn his head to call: “Hey, Evelyn.”
A girl—slim maturing body in tan sport clothes, slender sunburned face with dark bright eyes and dark short hair—came into the room through a doorway behind him.
The man did not look around at her. He nodded at the woman in red and said: “This—”
The woman interrupted him: “My name is Luise Fischer.”
The man said: “She’s got a bum leg.”
Evelyn’s dark prying eyes shifted their focus from the woman to the man—she could not see his face—and to the woman again. She smiled, speaking hurriedly: “I’m just leaving. I can drop you at Mile Valley on my way home.”
The woman seemed about to smile. Under her curious gaze Evelyn suddenly blushed, and her face became defiant while it reddened. The girl was pretty. Facing her, the woman had become beautiful; her eyes were long, heavily lashed, set well apart under a smooth broad brow, her mouth was not small but sensitively carved and mobile, and in the light from the open fire the surfaces of her face were as clearly defined as sculptured planes.
The man blew through his pipe, forcing out a small cloud of black powder. “No use hurrying,” he said. “There’s no train till six.” He looked up at the clock on the mantelpiece. It said ten-thirty-three. “Why don’t you help her with her leg?”
The woman said: “No, it is not necessary. I—” She put her weight on her injured leg and flinched, steadying herself with a hand on the back of a chair.
The girl hurried to her, stammering contritely: “I—I didn’t think. Forgive me.” She put an arm around the woman and helped her into the chair.
The man stood up to put his pipe on the mantelpiece, beside the clock. He was of medium height, but his sturdiness made him look shorter. His neck, rising from the V of a gray sweater, was short, powerfully muscled. Below the sweater he wore loose gray trousers and heavy brown shoes. He clicked his knife shut and put it in his pocket before turning to look at Luise Fischer.
Evelyn was on her knees in front of the woman, pulling off her right stocking, making sympathetic clucking noises, chattering nervously: “You’ve cut your knee too. Tch-tch-tch! And look how your ankle’s swelling. You shouldn’t’ve tried to walk all that distance in these slippers.” Her body hid the woman’s bare leg from the man. “Now, sit still and I’ll fix it up in a minute.” She pulled the torn red skirt down over the bare leg.
The woman’s smile was polite. She said carefully: “You are very kind.”
The girl ran out of the room.
The man had a paper package of cigarettes in his hand. He shook it until three cigarettes protruded half an inch and held them out to her. “Smoke?”
“Thank you.” She took a cigarette, put it between her lips, and looked at his hand when he held a match to it. His hand was thick-boned, muscular, but not a laborer’s. She looked through her lashes at his face while he was lighting his cigarette. He was younger than he had seemed at first glance—perhaps no older than thirty-two or -three—and his features, in the flare of his match, seemed less stolid than disciplined.
“Bang it up much?” His tone was merely conversational.
“I hope I have not.” She drew up her skirt to look first at her ankle, then at her knee. The ankle was perceptibly though not greatly swollen; the knee was cut once deeply, twice less seriously. She touched the edges of the cuts gently with a forefinger. “I do not like pain,” she said very earnestly.
Evelyn came in with a basin of steaming water, cloths, a roll of bandage, salve. Her dark eyes widened at the man and woman, but were hidden by lowered lids by the time their faces had turned toward her. “I’ll fix it now. I’ll have it all fixed in a minute.” She knelt in front of the woman again, nervous hand sloshing water on the floor, body between Luise Fischer’s leg and the man.
He went to the door and looked out, holding the door half a foot open against the wind.
The woman asked the girl bathing her ankle: “There is not a train before it is morning?” She pursed her lips thoughtfully.
The man shut the door and said: “It’ll be raining in an hour.” He put more wood on the fire, then stood—legs apart, hands in pockets, cigarette dangling from one side of his mouth—watching Evelyn attend to the woman’s leg. His face was placid.
The girl dried the ankle and began to wind a bandage around it, working with increasing speed, breathing more rapidly now. Once more the woman seemed about to smile at the girl, but instead she said, “You are very kind.”
The girl murmured: “It’s nothing.”
Three sharp knocks sounded on the door.
Luise Fischer started, dropped her cigarette, looked swiftly around the room with frightened eyes. The girl did not raise her head from her work. The man, with nothing in his face or manner to show he had noticed the woman’s fright, turned his face toward the door and called in his hoarse, matter-of-fact voice: “All right. Come in.”
The door opened and a spotted Great Dane came in, followed by two tall men in dinner clothes. The dog walked straight to Luise Fischer and nuzzled her hand. She was looking at the two men who had just entered. There was no timidity, no warmth in her gaze.
One of the men pulled off his cap—it was a gray tweed, matching his topcoat—and came to her, smiling. “So this is where you landed?” His smile vanished as he saw her leg and the bandages. “What happened?” He was perhaps forty years old, well groomed, graceful of carriage, with smooth dark hair, intelligent dark eyes—solicitous at the moment—and a close-clipped dark mustache. He pushed the dog aside and took the woman’s hand.
“It is not serious
He turned to the man in the gray sweater, holding out his hand, saying briskly: “Thanks ever so much for taking care of Fraulein Fischer. You’re Brazil, aren’t you?”
The man in the sweater nodded. “And you’d be Kane Robson.”
“Right.” Robson jerked his head at the man who still stood just inside the door. “Mr. Conroy.”
Brazil nodded. Conroy said, “How do you do,” and advanced toward Luise Fischer. He was an inch or two taller than Robson—who was nearly six feet himself—and some ten years younger, blond, broad-shouldered, and lean, with a beautifully shaped small head and remarkably symmetrical features. A dark overcoat hung over one of his arms and he carried a black hat in his hand. He smiled down at the woman and said: “Your idea of a lark’s immense.”
She addressed Robson: “Why have you come here?”
He smiled amiably, raised his shoulders a little. “You said you weren’t feeling well and were going to lie down. When Helen went up to your room to see how you were, you weren’t there. We were afraid you had gone out and something had happened to you.” He looked at her leg, moved his shoulders again. “Well, we were right.”
Nothing in her face responded to his smile. “I am going to the city,” she told him. “Now you know.”
“All right, if you want to”—he was good-natured—“but you can’t go like that.” He nodded at her torn evening dress. “We’ll take you back home, where you can change your clothes and pack a bag and—” He turned to Brazil. “When’s the next train?”
Brazil said: “Six.” The dog was sniffing at his legs.
“You see,” Robson said blandly, speaking to the woman again. “There’s plenty of time.”
She looked down at her clothes and seemed to find them satisfactory. “I go like this,” she replied.