Ed here: Mike Nevins is the Edgar-winning novelist/short-storywriter/biographer/historian whose work with the fiction and life of Cornell Woolrich has been acclaimed as definitive. Here's a small piece of what MIke does so, this a reprint from Mystery-File, one of the truly great sites of all time.
Mike Nevins: I recently attended a convention in suburban Baltimore but arrived before my hotel room was ready. Luckily there was a bookstore with comfortable chairs in the mall across the street, and I killed some time in the mystery section with “Arson Plus,” the first of Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op stories, originally published in Black Mask for October 1, 1923 and recently reprinted in Otto Penzler’s mammoth Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories.
For decades this was one of the rarest of Hammett tales, revived only by Fred Dannay (in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, August 1951, and in the Queen-edited paperback collection Woman in the Dark, 1951).
Today it’s in the Penzler anthology and a major hardcover Hammett collection (Crime Stories and Other Writings, Library of America 2001) and can also be downloaded from the Web in a few seconds.
The other day I felt an urge to compare the e-text with theEQMM and Library of America versions, and made a discovery that startled but didn’t really surprise me. The Web version I downloaded is identical with Fred’s except for a few changes in punctuation and italicization, but both are quite different from the Library of America text, which uses the version originally published in Black Mask. Fred believed that every story ever written was too long and therefore tended to trim the tales he reprinted, even those by masters like Hammett. Some of the bits and pieces he cut were perhaps redundant, but he also axed part of the Continental Op’s explanation at the end of the story.
Reprinting “Arson Plus” in 1951, he must have felt a need to update some of the price references to reflect post-World War II inflation. At the very beginning of the original version, the Op offers a cigar to the Sacramento County sheriff, who estimates that it cost “fifteen cents straight.” The Op corrects him, giving the price as two for a quarter. Fred raised these figures to “three for a buck” and ”two bits each” respectively.
He also added a cool ten thousand dollars to the purchase price of a house that in the 1923 version sold for $4,500. Where a Hammett character disposes of $4,000 in Liberty bonds (sold by the government to finance World War I), Fred has him sell $15,000 worth of common or garden variety bonds.
Whenever Hammett refers to an automobile as a “machine,” Fred changes it to “car.” Where three men in a general store are “talking Hiram Johnson,” Fred has them merely “talking.” (Hiram Johnson, as we learn from a note in the Library of America volume, was governor of California between 1911 and 1917 and later served four terms as senator.)
He also unaccountably changes the name of a major character from Handerson to Henderson. A quick check of Fred’s versions of a few other Continental Op stories with the original texts yielded similar results and a clear conclusion: to read Hammett’s tales as they were meant to be read, you have to read them in the Library of America collection. This doesn’t help, of course, with the eight Op stories not collected in that volume, but it’s a start.
In every version of “Arson Plus” the plot is of course the same: a man insures his life for big bucks, assumes another identity, sets fire to the house he bought, and the woman named as beneficiary demands payment.
Did these people really think any insurance company would be fooled for a minute when there were no human remains in the ashes of the destroyed house? Didn’t Hammett with his experience as a PI realize that this plot was ridiculous? Was Fred ever bothered by its silliness?