Created by Dashiell Hammett
“I am not privy to the quirk in Sergeant Hooley’s mind which makes attendance at this particular university constitute, for him, a humorous situation; nor can I perceive why he should find so much pleasure in mentioning that famous seat of learning to me who, as I have often taken the trouble to explain to him attended an altogether different university.”
— Robin doesn’t get Hooley’s joke
One of the harder-to-track-down short stories by Dashiell Hammett is “The Nails in Mr. Cayterer, “ which appeared in the January 1926 issue of Black Mask. It’s a weird one; a sort of mash-up of the sort of hard-boiled story that Hammett excelled at, and a put-on of the Golden Age mystery, a genre he generally had little use for.
The story is narrated, in an overblown, erudite, wordy style by smug young ROBIN THIN, JUNIOR, a 20-something twit who dreams of being a poet. But in the meantime, the prissy little prat is working for his disapproving, rough-and-tumble dad, ROBIN “BOB” THIN, SENIOR, who runs a San Francisco detective agency — despite the fact that Junior has no apparent detective skills at all, and seems rather oblivious in general.
It’s a curious blend, and Hammett plays it mostly for laughs. Most of the story is told in Robin’s overly refined and needlessly circular style (why use a word when you can use a paragraph? Or two?), but when his father and various other characters (including hapless Sergeant Hooley of the SFPD) speak, they could be channelling the taut, terse vocabulary of the Continental Op. The disparity of the two styles is on full display here, and Hammett, that ace performer of tone and dialogue — with his tongue no doubt firmly in cheek — not only nails both styles, but seems to have a lot of fun while doing it.
Hammett revisited this father-and-son odd couple in a second story, “A Man Named Thin,” wherein Junior is dispatched by his father, despite his protests, to investigate the robbery of a jewelry store. Unfortunately, it was back-burnered and didn’t see print until 1961, shortly after Hammett died.
- “The Nails in Mr. Cayterer” (January 1926, Black Mask)
- “A Man Named Thin” (March 1961, EQMM)