Jeffrey Main comes home from Los Angeles with $20,000 in his wallet and a target on his back. Two gunmen burst through the door, instigating a scuffle that leaves Main dead, his wife unconscious, and the money long gone. At least, that’s the way the cops tell it. The police see no other way the killers could have escaped so easily, and the case falls to the Continental Op—San Francisco’s most ruthless private detective. Behind this strange murder lurks a toxic case of greed, and the Op must risk his neck to learn who pulled the trigger.
“The Main Death” is vintage Dashiell Hammett, the sort of hard-driving tale that made him a legend and made Black Mask the most respected of all the pulp magazines. Paired with “This King Business” in this captivating collection of Hammett’s later Continental Op stories, it is a fine reminder that hardboiled action never goes out of style.
Praise for Dashiell Hammett
“Hammett was the ace performer. . . . He did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.” —Raymond Chandler, author of The Big Sleep
“Hammett was the great poet of the great American collision—personal honour and corruption, opportunity and fatality.” —James Ellroy, author of L.A. Confidential
“Hammett is a master of the detective novel, yes, but also one hell of a writer.” —The Boston Globe
About the Author
Date of Birth:May 27, 1894
Date of Death:January 10, 1961
Place of Birth:St. Mary, Maryland
Place of Death:New York
Education:Baltimore Polytechnic Institute
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The Main Death and This King Business
Collected Case Files of the Continental Op The Later Years, Vol. 2
By Dashiell Hammett, Richard Layman, Julie M. Rivett
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1984 Pro-Distributors
All rights reserved.
THE MAIN DEATH
Black Mask, June 1927
After an enforced absence from literary work, Mr. Hammett is once more in the lineup of Black Mask regular contributors, and, judging from the many enthusiastic comments on The Big Knock-Over, his popularity is greater than ever. In The Main Death — which, by the way, is a short story — he is at his clevrest and bet. By its surprise development, its subtleties, its wonderfully clear picturization, its easy, swift movement to the climax, this tale will delight every lover of the short story. It is a gem — a model of what the short story can be. A curious tangle of a robbery, a mysterious killing and jealousy.
The captain told me Hacken and Begg were handling the job. I caught them leaving the detectives' assembly room. Begg was a freckled heavyweight, as friendly as a Saint Bernard puppy, but less intelligent. Lanky detective-sergeant Hacken, not so playful, carried the team's brains behind his worried hatchet face.
"In a hurry?" I inquired.
"Always in a hurry when we're quitting for the day," Begg said, his freckles climbing up his face to make room for his grin.
"What do you want?" Hacken asked.
"I want the low-down on the Main doings — if any."
"You going to work on it?"
"Yes," I said, "for Main's boss — Gungen."
"Then you can tell us something. Why'd he have the twenty thou in cash?"
"Tell you in the morning," I promised. "I haven't seen Gungen yet. Got a date with him tonight."
While we talked we had gone into the assembly room, with its schoolroom arrangement of desks and benches. Half a dozen police detectives were scattered among them, doing reports. We three sat around Hacken's desk and the lanky detective-sergeant talked:
"Main got home from Los Angeles at eight, Sunday night, with twenty thousand in his wallet. He'd gone down there to sell something for Gungen. You find out why he had that much in cash. He told his wife he had driven up from L. A. with a friend — no name. She went to bed around ten-thirty, leaving him reading. He had the money — two hundred hundred-dollar bills — in a brown wallet.
"So far, so good. He's in the living-room reading. She's in the bedroom sleeping. Just the two of them in the apartment. A racket wakes her. She jumps out of bed, runs into the living-room. There's Main wrestling with a couple of men. One's tall and husky. The other's little — kind of girlish built. Both have got black handkerchiefs over their mugs and caps pulled down.
"When Mrs. Main shows, the little one breaks away from Main and sticks her up. Puts a gun in Mrs. Main's face and tells her to behave. Main and the other guy are still scuffling. Main has got his gun in his hand, but the thug has him by the wrist, trying to twist it. He makes it pretty soon — Main drops the rod. The thug flashes his own, holding Main off while he bends down to pick up the one that fell.
"When the man stoops, Main piles on him. He manages to knock the fellow's gun out of his hand, but by that time the fellow had got the one on the floor — the one Main had dropped. They're heaped up there for a couple of seconds. Mrs. Main can't see what's happening. Then bang! Main's falling away, his vest burning where the shot had set fire to it, a bullet in his heart, his gun smoking in the masked guy's fist. Mrs. Main passes out.
"When she comes to there's nobody in the apartment but herself and her dead husband. His wallet's gone, and so is his gun. She was unconscious for about half an hour. We know that, because other people heard the shot and could give us the time — even if they didn't know where it come from.
"The Mains' apartment is on the sixth floor. It's an eight-story building. Next door to it, on the corner of Eighteenth Avenue, is a two-story building — grocery downstairs, grocer's flat upstairs. Behind these buildings runs a narrow back street — an alley. All right.
"Kinney — the patrolman on that beat — was walking down Eighteenth Avenue. He heard the shot. It was clear to him, because the Mains' apartment is on that side of the building — the side overlooking the grocer's — but Kinney couldn't place it right away. He wasted time scouting around up the street. By the time he got down as far as the alley in his hunting, the birds had flown. Kinney found signs of 'em though — they had dropped a gun in the alley — the gun they'd taken from Main and shot him with. But Kinney didn't see 'em — didn't see anybody who might have been them.
"Now, from a hall window of the apartment house's third floor to the roof of the grocer's building is easy going. Anybody but a cripple could make it — in or out — and the window's never locked. From the grocer's roof to the back street is almost as easy. There's a cast iron pipe, a deep window, a door with heavy hinges sticking out — a regular ladder up and down that back wall. Begg and I did it without working up a sweat. The pair could have gone in that way. We know they left that way. On the grocer's roof we found Main's wallet — empty, of course — and a handkerchief. The wallet had metal corners. The handkerchief had caught on one of 'em, and went with it when the crooks tossed it away."
"A woman's — with an E in one corner."
"Her name is Agnes," Hacken said. "We showed her the wallet, the gun, and the handkerchief. She identified the first two as her husband's, but the handkerchief was a new one on her. However, she could give us the name of the perfume on it — Dèsir du Cur. And — with it for a guide — she said the smaller of the masked pair could have been a woman. She had already described him as kind of girlish built."
"Any fingerprints, or the like?" I asked.
"No. Phels went over the apartment, the window, the roof, the wallet and the gun. Not a smear."
"Mrs. Main identify 'em?"
"She says she'd know the little one. Maybe she would."
"Got anything on the who?"
"Not yet," the lanky detective-sergeant said as we moved toward the door.
In the street I left the police sleuths and set out for Bruno Gungen's home in Westwood Park.
The dealer in rare and antique jewelry was a little bit of a man and a fancy one. His dinner jacket was corset-tight around his waist, padded high and sharp at the shoulders. Hair, mustache and spade-shaped goatee were dyed black and greased until they were as shiny as his pointed pink finger-nails. I wouldn't bet a cent that the color in his fifty-year-old cheeks wasn't rouge.
He came out of the depths of a leather library chair to give me a soft, warm hand that was no larger than a child's, bowing and smiling at me with his head tilted to one side.
Then he introduced me to his wife, who bowed without getting up from her seat at the table. Apparently she was a little more than a third of his age. She couldn't have been a day over nineteen, and she looked more like sixteen. She was as small as he, with a dimpled olive-skinned face, round brown eyes, a plump painted mouth and the general air of an expensive doll in a toy-store window.
Bruno Gungen explained to her at some length that I was connected with the Continental Detective Agency, and that he had employed me to help the police find Jeffrey Main's murderers and recover the stolen twenty thousand dollars.
She murmured, "Oh, yes!" in a tone that said she was not the least bit interested, and stood up, saying, "Then I'll leave you to —"
"No, no, my dear!" Her husband was waving his pink fingers at her. "I would have no secrets from you."
His ridiculous little face jerked around to me, cocked itself sidewise, and he asked, with a little giggle:
"Is not that so? That between husband and wife there should be no secrets?"
I pretended I agreed with him.
"You, I know, my dear," he addressed his wife, who had sat down again, "are as much interested in this as I, for did we not have an equal affection for dear Jeffrey? Is it not so?"
She repeated, "Oh, yes!" with the same lack of interest.
Her husband turned to me and said, "Now?" encouragingly.
"I've seen the police," I told him. "Is there anything you can add to their story? Anything new? Anything you didn't tell them?"
He whisked his face around toward his wife.
"Is there, Enid, dear?"
"I know of nothing," she replied.
He giggled and made a delighted face at me.
"That is it," he said. "We know of nothing."
"He came back to San Francisco eight o'clock Sunday night — three hours before he was killed and robbed — with twenty thousand dollars in hundred-dollar bills. What was he doing with it?"
"It was the proceeds of a sale to a customer," Bruno Gungen explained. "Mr. Nathaniel Ogilvie, of Los Angeles."
"But why cash?"
The little man's painted face screwed itself up into a shrewd leer.
"A bit of hanky-panky," he confessed complacently, "a trick of the trade, as one says. You know the genus collector? Ah, there is a study for you! Observe. I obtain a golden tiara of early Grecian workmanship, or let me be correct — purporting to be of early Grecian workmanship, purporting also to have been found in Southern Russia, near Odessa. Whether there is any truth in either of these suppositions I do not know, but certainly the tiara is a thing of beauty."
"Now I have a client, a Mr. Nathaniel Ogilvie, of Los Angeles, who has an appetite for curios of the sort — a very devil of a cacoethes carpendi. The value of these items, you will comprehend, is exactly what one can get for them — no more, little less. This tiara — now ten thousand dollars is the least I could have expected for it, if sold as one sells an ordinary article of the sort. But can one call a golden cap made long ago for some forgotten Scythian king an ordinary article of any sort? No! No! So, swaddled in cotton, intricately packed, Jeffrey carries this tiara to Los Angeles to show our Mr. Ogilvie.
"In what manner the tiara came into our hands Jeffrey will not say. But he will hint at devious intrigues, smuggling, a little of violence and lawlessness here and there, the necessity for secrecy. For your true collector, there is the bait! Nothing is anything to him except as it is difficultly come by. Jeffrey will not lie. No! Mon Dieu, that would be dishonest, despicable! But he will suggest much, and he will refuse, oh, so emphatically! to take a check for the tiara. No check, my dear sir! Nothing which may be traced! Cash moneys!
"Hanky-panky, as you see. But where is the harm? Mr. Ogilvie is certainly going to buy the tiara, and our little deceit simply heightens his pleasure in his purchase. He will enjoy its possession so much the more. Besides, who is to say that this tiara is not authentic? If it is, then these things Jeffrey suggests are indubitably true. Mr. Ogilvie does buy it, for twenty thousand dollars, and that is why poor Jeffrey had in his possession so much cash money."
He flourished a pink hand at me, nodded his dyed head vigorously, and finished with:
"Voilà! That is it!"
"Did you hear from Main after he got back?" I asked.
The dealer smiled as if my question tickled him, turning his head so that the smile was directed at his wife.
"Did we, Enid, darling?" he passed on the question.
She pouted and shrugged her shoulders indifferently.
"The first we knew he had returned," Gungen interpreted these gestures to me, "was Monday morning, when we heard of his death. Is it not so, my dove?"
His dove murmured, "Yes," and left her chair, saying, "You'll excuse me? I have a letter to write."
"Certainly, my dear," Gungen told her as he and I stood up.
She passed close to him on her way to the door. His small nose twitched over his dyed mustache and he rolled his eyes in a caricature of ecstasy.
"What a delightful scent, my precious!" he exclaimed. "What a heavenly odor! What a song to the nostrils! Has it a name, my love?"
"Yes," she said, pausing in the doorway, not looking back.
"And it is?"
"Dèsir du Cur," she replied over her shoulder as she left us.
Bruno Gungen looked at me and giggled.
I sat down again and asked him what he knew about Jeffrey Main.
"Everything, no less," he assured me. "For a dozen years, since he was a boy of eighteen he has been my right eye, my right hand."
"Well, what sort of man was he?"
Bruno Gungen showed me his pink palms side by side.
"What sort is any man?" he asked over them.
That didn't mean anything to me, so I kept quiet, waiting.
"I shall tell you," the little man began presently. "Jeffrey had the eye and the taste for this traffic of mine. No man living save myself alone has a judgment in these matters which I would prefer to Jeffrey's. And, honest, mind you! Let nothing I say mislead you on that point. Never a lock have I to which Jeffrey had not also the key, and might have it forever, if he had lived so long.
"But there is a but. In his private life, rascal is a word that only does him justice. He drank, he gambled, he loved, he spent — dear God, how he spent! He was, in this drinking and gaming and loving and spending, a most promiscuous fellow, beyond doubt. With moderation he had nothing to do. Of the moneys he got by inheritance, of the fifty thousand dollars or more his wife had when they were married, there is no remainder. Fortunately, he was well insured — else his wife would have been left penniless. Oh, he was a true Heliogabalus, that fellow!"
Bruno Gungen went down to the front door with me when I left. I said, "Good night," and walked down the gravel path to where I had left my car. The night was clear, dark, moonless. High hedges were black walls on both sides of the Gungen place. To the left there was a barely noticeable hole in the blackness — a dark-gray hole — oval — the size of a face.
I got into my car, stirred up the engine and drove away. Into the first cross-street I turned, parked the machine, and started back toward Gungen's afoot. I was curious about that face-size oval.
When I reached the corner, I saw a woman coming toward me from the direction of Gungen's. I was in the shadow of a wall. Cautiously, I backed away from the corner until I came to a gate with brick buttresses sticking out. I made myself flat between them.
The woman crossed the street, went on up the driveway, toward the car line. I couldn't make out anything about her, except that she was a woman. Maybe she was coming from Gungen's grounds, maybe not. Maybe it was her face I had seen against the hedge, maybe not. It was a heads or tails proposition. I guessed yes and tailed her up the drive.
Her destination was a drugstore on the car line. Her business there was with the telephone. She spent ten minutes at it. I didn't go into the store to try for an earful, but stayed on the other side of the street, contenting myself with a good look at her.
She was a girl of about twenty-five, medium in height, chunky in build, with pale gray eyes that had little pouches under them, a thick nose and a prominent lower lip. She had no hat over her brown hair. Her body was wrapped in a long blue cape.
From the drug store I shadowed her back to the Gungen house. She went in the back door. A servant, probably, but not the maid who had opened the door for me earlier in the evening.
I returned to my car, drove back to town, to the office.
"Is Dick Foley working on anything?" I asked Fiske, who sits on the Continental Detective Agency's affairs at night.
"No. Did you ever hear the story about the fellow who had his neck operated on?"
With the slightest encouragement, Fiske is good for a dozen stories without a stop, so I said:
"Yes. Get hold of Dick and tell him I've got a shadow job out Westwood Park way for him to start on in the morning."
I gave Fiske — to be passed on to Dick — Gungen's address and a description of the girl who had done the phoning from the drugstore. Then I assured the night man that I had also heard the story about the pickaninny named Opium, and likewise the one about what the old man said to his wife on their golden wedding anniversary. Before he could try me with another, I escaped to my own office, where I composed and coded a telegram to our Los Angeles branch, asking that Main's recent visit to that city be dug into.
The next morning Hacken and Begg dropped in to see me and I gave them Gungen's version of why the twenty thousand had been in cash. The police detectives told me a stool-pigeon had brought them word that Bunky Dahl — a local guerrilla who did a moderate business in hijacking — had been flashing a roll since about the time of Main's death.
"We haven't picked him up yet," Hacken said. "Haven't been able to place him, but we've got a line on his girl. Course, he might have got his dough somewhere else."
At ten o'clock that morning I had to go over to Oakland to testify against a couple of flimflammers who had sold bushels of stock in a sleight-of-hand rubber manufacturing business. When I got back to the Agency, at six that evening, I found a wire from Los Angeles on my desk.
Excerpted from The Main Death and This King Business by Dashiell Hammett, Richard Layman, Julie M. Rivett. Copyright © 1984 Pro-Distributors. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword: "Through Mud and Blood and Death and Deceit",
Introduction: The Later Years, 1926–1930,
"The Main Death",
"This King Business",
About the Author,