The Sardonic Star of Tom Doody

by Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett
Dashiell Hammett
Year Unknown

Samuel Dashiell Hammett was born of farmer parents, Richard Hammett and Anne Dashiell, in rural Maryland, on May 27th, 1894. Evidently, the family farm was lost when Hammett was quite young, as he grew up in Baltimore and then Philadelphia. He dropped out of high school at the age of 14 and worked a succession of odd jobs to help support his family. In 1915, at the age of 21, Hammett was hired by the famed Pinkerton detective agency as an operative, a career that was interrupted by World War 1, in which Hammett served as an ambulance driver.

Hammett returned to the Pinkertons after the war, hampered by tuberculosis which he had contacted during his military service. He married nurse Josephine Dolan, whom he had met during his TB treatments, in 1920; the marriage produced two daughters but Hammett’s medical condition dictated that he make only occasional visits to his family for fear of infecting them. He also began to develop a distaste for his employers, since the Pinkertons’ frequent strike-breaking assignments often resulted in violence.

In 1921 Hammett left the Pinkerton agency and settled in San Francisco near his wife and children. He tried his hand at writing advertising copy while trying to sell short fiction to various magazines, interspersing his work with some hard bouts of drinking. He struck gold when he submitted a story to the detective magazine Black Mask in 1922. The magazine had been begun by H. L. Mencken as a revenue-earner to support his more intellectual but less widely-read Smart Set magazine, and, under new owners and the editorship of “Cap” Joseph Shaw, had quickly become a strong money-maker. Black Mask was the venue that would present not only the early work of Hammett, but also that of Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Carroll John Daly to the world. Hammett was the first of these greats to debut in Black Mask, and cast a shadow of influence over most of his successors.

Cover to The Maltese Falcon (1930)
The Maltese Falcon
Alfred E. Knopf (1930)

Hammett’s early stories for Black Mask were published under the pseudonym of “Peter Collinson,” but he soon began using his own name. The years between his first sale to Black Mask in 1922 and the publication of his final novel, The Thin Man, in 1934 saw the appearance of such notable works as the “Continental Op” mysteries The Dain Curse and Red Harvest (the latter based directly on Hammett’s experiences as a detective/strikebreaker in Montana), The Glass Key, The Maltese Falcon, and many short stories. While Hammett’s writing enjoyed considerable success, he encountered many personal and professional failures during these years, which saw the breakup of his marriage, his failure to make it as a successful screenwriter in Hollywood, the intensification of his drinking habit, and the start of a lengthy affair with playwright Lillian Hellman. His glory days as a writer were short-lived, and, after The Thin Man, the rest was silence, at least where his literary output was concerned.

The American Short Story April 1930 cover
The American Short Story
April, 1930
Cover artist unknown

Due partly to continuing disappointments and his ever-present TB, Hammett became increasingly bitter and radical during this period, and his disillusionment with society and the world in general led to his ultimately becoming a Communist Party member in 1937. Despite being overage, he pulled strings to get into the army during World War 2, although because of his health he wound up stuck at a remote army post in the Aleutian Islands. In the post-war era his subversive ties brought him under Congressional investigation and led to his being blacklisted in 1953 after refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee. On January 10, 1961, Hammett died of lung cancer and was buried, most oddly for a man so opposed to “the system” but appropriately as befitting a veteran of both World Wars, in Arlington National Cemetery, an irony he might have found amusing. No doubt many of his 1920s and 1930s readers were surprised to learn he had still been alive, considering how long ago his writing had faded under the strain of his marital, political, and alcoholic problems.

Hammett, as the founder—or at least chief refiner—of the “hard-boiled” school of detective fiction, was assisted mightily in his work by a life that gave him ample stores of cynicism and disillusionment with which to infuse his chosen genre. Earlier fictional detectives had been well-to-do eccentric dilettantes (Sherlock Holmes is the prime example) or police and government agents fighting crime as part of their duty. Hammett’s heroes tracked down criminals to make a living, not from any desire to fulfill intellectual curiosity, and owed loyalty to no employer, private or public. They might work for a client or a detective agency, but their own personal code of rules was their guiding principal and they felt no obligation to play ball with any person or organization that contradicted these rules. Hammett’s Sam Spade and Continental Op, and their hard-boiled literary successors, the great Phillip Marlowe chief among them, are men who tend to do the right thing not because it’s the “right thing” or because they feel they have a duty to protect society, but because they couldn’t live with themselves if they violated their personal rules. It took an alienated man to create such alienated characters-but more than that, it took a great writer to put his own and his audience’s alienations into such memorable literary form.

The Maltese Falcon, first serialized in Black Mask, is undoubtedly the best-known of all Hammett’s work, closely followed by his final book, The Thin Man. However, he wrote many short stories, one of which, “The Sardonic Star of Tom Doody,” is here presented. It was first published in the February, 1923 issue of Brief Stories. Hammett’s talent for terse, tough, and descriptive prose is on full display here, as is his trademark cynicism.

Dan Neyer
June, 2022
Introduction © 20XX by Dan Neyer
Editor’s Note(s): “The Sardonic Star of Tom Doody” had a rather convoluted history in its magazine appearances. As mentioned above, it originally appeared in the February, 1923 issue of Brief Stories under the Peter Collinson pseudonym. It’s next magazine publication was in the April, 1930 issue of The American Short Story, again under the Collinson name but, for reasons unknown, the title was changed to “Ah, Fate! .” When “Sardonic Star” was reprinted in the November, 1957 issue Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, it appeared under Hammett’s own name, but was given yet another title, “The Wages of Crime.” The story has also appeared in a number of print anthologies, including the Peter Haining edited The Fantastic Pulps, which is the source of our text.
It should also be added, that the cover for The American Short Story which appears above is a reconstruction from a number of different sources.

COME along without any fuss and there won’t be trouble,” said the tall man with the protruding lower lip.

“And remember, anything you say will——” the fat man under the stiff straw hat warned, the rest of the prescribed caution dying somewhere within the folds of his burly neck.

A frown of perplexed interrogation reduced the none too ample area between Tom Doody’s eyebrows and the roots of his hair. He cleared his throat uneasily and asked, “But what’s it for?”

The protruding lower lip overlapped the upper in a smile that tempered derision with indulgence. “You ought to be able to guess—but it ain’t a secret. You’re arrested for stealing sixty-five thousand dollars from the National Marine Bank. We found the dough where you hid it, and now we got you.”

"That’s what,” the fat man corroborated.

TOM Doody leaned across the plain table in the visitors’ room and bent his beady eyes on the tired, middle-aged eyes of the woman from the Morning Bulletin.

“Miss Envers, I have served three and a half years here and I’ve got nearly ten more to do, taking in account what I expect to get off for good behaviour. A long time, I guess you think; but I’m telling you that I don’t regret a minute of it.” He paused to let this startlng assertion sink in, and then leaned forward again over hands that lay flat, palms down, fingers spread, on the top of the table.

“I came in here, Miss Envers, a safe-burglar that had been caught for the first and only time in fifteen years of crime. I am going out of here completely reformed, and with only one aim in my life; and that’s to do all I can to keep other people from following in my footsteps. I’m studying, and the chaplain is helping me, so that when I get out I can talk and write so as to get my message across. I used to be pretty good at reciting and making speeches when I was a kid in school and I guess it’ll come back to me all right. I’m going from one end of the country to the other, if I have to ride freights, telling of my experiences as a criminal, and the light that busted—burst on me here in prizon. I know what it is, and lots of people that maybe wouldn’t listen to a preacher or anybody else will pay attention to me. They’ll know that I know what I am talking about, that I’ve been through it, that I’m the man who robbed the National Marine Bank and lots of others.”

“You were very nearly acquitted, weren’t you ?” Evelyn Envers asked.

“Yes, nearly,” the convict said, “and as truly as I’m sitting here, Miss Envers, I thank God that I was convicted!”

He stopped and tried to read surprise in the faded grey eyes across the table. Then he went on. “But for that—the chance for self-knowledge and thought that this place has gave—has given me—I might have gone on and on, might never have come to an understanding of what it means to be a Christian and know the difference between right and wrong. Here in prison I found for the first time in my life, liberty—yes liberty!—freedom from the bonds of vice and crime and self-destruction!” With this paradox he rested.

“Have you made any other plans for your career after leaving here?” the woman asked.

"No. That’s too far ahead. But I am going to spend the rest of my life spreading the truth about crime as I know it, if I have to sleep in gutters and live on stale bread!”

HE’S a fraud, of course,” Evelyn Envers told her typewriter as she slid a sheet of paper into it, “but he’ll make as good a story as anything else.”

So she wrote a column about Tom Doody and his high resolves, and because the thought behind his reformation was so evident to her she took special pains with the story, gilding the shabbier of his mouthings and garnishing the man himself with no inconsiderable appeal.

For several days after the story’s appearance letters came to the Morning Bulletin Readers’ Forum, commenting on Tom Doody and tendering suggestions of various sorts.

The Rev. Randall Gordon Rand made Tom Doody the subject of one of his informal Sunday talks.

And then John J. Kelleher, 1322 Britton Street, was crushed to death by a furniture van after pushing little Fern Bier, five-year-old daughter to Louis Bier, 1304 Britton Street, to safety; and it developed that Kelleher had been convicted of burglary several years before, and was out on parole at the time of the accident.

Evelyn Envers wrote a column about Kelleher and his dark-eyed little wife, and with doubtful relevance brought Tom Doody into the last paragraph. The Chronicle and the Intelligencer printed editorials in which Kelleher’s death was adduced as demonstrative of the parole system’s merit.

On the afternoon before the next regular meeting of the State Parole Board the football team of the state university—three members of the board were ardent alumni—turned a defeat into victory in the last quarter.

Tom Doody was paroled.

FROM his room on the third floor of the Chapham Hotel, Tom Doody could see one of the posters. Red and black letters across a fifteen-by-thirty field of glaring white gave notice that Tom Doody, a reformed safe-burglar of considerable renown, would talk at the Lyric Theatre each night for one week on the wages of sin.

Tom Doody tilted his chair forward, rested his elbows on the sill, and studied the poster with fond eyes. That billboard was all right—though he had thought perhaps his picture would be on it. But Fincher had displayed no enthusiasm when a suggestion to that effect had been made, and whatever Fincher said went. Fincher was all right. There was the contract Fincher had given him—a good hundred dollars more a week than he had really expected.

And then there was that young fellow Fincher had hired to put Tom Doody’s lecture in shape. There was no doubt that the lecture was all right now.

The lecture began with his childhood in the bosom of a loving family, carried him through the usual dance-hall and pool-room introductions to gay society, and then rose in a crescendo of vague but nevertheless increasingly vicious crime to a smashing climax with the burglary of the National Marine Bank’s $65,000, the resultant arrest and conviction, and the new life that had dawned as he bent one day over his machine in the prison jute-mill. Then a tapering off with a picture of the criminal’s inherent misery and the glory of standing four-square with the world. But the red meat of it was the thousand and one nights of crime—that was what the audience would come to hear.

The young fellow who had been hired to mould and polish the Doody epic had wanted concrete facts—names and dates and amounts—about the earlier crimes; but Tom Doody had drawn the line there, protesting that such a course would lay him open to arrest for felonies with which the police had heretofore been unable to connect him, and Fincher had agreed with him.

The truth of it was that there were no crimes prior to the National Marine Bank burglary—that unexpected conviction was the only picturesque spot in Tom Doody’s life. But he knew too much to tell Fincher that. At the time of his arrest the newspapers and the police—who, for quite perceptible reasons, pretend to see in every apprehended criminal an enormously adept and industrious fellow—had brought to light hundreds of burglaries, and even a murder or two, in which this Tom Doody might have been implicated. He felt that these fanciful accusations had helped expedite his conviction, but now the fanfare was to be of value to him—as witness the figure on his contract. As a burglar with but a single crime to his credit he would have been a poor attraction on the platform, but with the sable and crimson laurels the police and the press had hung upon him, that was another matter.

For at least a year these black and red and white posters would accompany him wherever he went. His contract covered that period, and perhaps he could renew it for many years. Why not? The lecture was all right, and he knew he could deliver it creditably. He had rehearsed assiduously and Fincher had seemed pleased with his address. Of course he’d probably be a little nervous tomorrow night, when he faced an audience for the first time, but that would pass and he would soon feel at home in this new game. There was money in it—the ticket sales had been large, so Fincher said. Perhaps after a while?

The door opened violently and Fincher came into the room—an apoplectic Fincher, altogether unlike the usual smiling, mellow manager of Fincher’s International Lecture Bureau.

“What’s up?” Tom Doody asked, consciously keeping his eyes from darting furtively towards the door.

“What’s up?” Fincher repeated the words, but his voice was a bellow.

“What’s up?” He brandished a rolled newspaper shillalah-wise in Tom Doody’s face. “I’ll show you what’s up!” He seemed to be lashing himself into more vehement furty with reiterations of the ex-convict’s query, as lions were once said to do with their tails.

He straightened out the newspaper, smoothed a few square inches of its surface, and thrust it at Tom Doody’s nose, with one lusty forefinger laid like an indicator on the centre of the sheet.

Tom Doody leaned back until his eyes were far enough away to focus upon the print around his manager’s finger

. . . by the police, Tom Doody, who was paroled several days ago after serving nearly four years for the theft of $65,000 from the National Marine Bank, has been completely exonerated of that crime by the deathbed confession of Walter Beadle, who . . .

“That’s what’s up!” Fincher shouted, when Tom Doody had shifted his abject eyes from the paper to the floor. “Now I want that five hundred dollars I advanced to you!”

Tom Doody went through his pockets with alacrity that poorly masked his despair, and brought out some bills and a handful of silver. Fincher grabbed the money from the ex-convict’s hands and counted it rapidly.

“Two hundred and thirty-one dollars and forty cents,” he announced.

“Where’s the rest?”

Tom Doody tried to say something but only muttered.

“Mumbling won’t do any good,” Fincher snarled. “I want my five hundred dollars. Where is it?”

“That’s all I’ve got,” Tom Doody whined. “I spent the rest, but I’ll pay every cent of it back if you’ll only give me time.”

“I’ll give you time, you dirty crook, I’ll give you time!” Fincher stamped to the telephone. “I’ll give you till the police get here, and if you don’t come across I’m going to swear out a warrant for obtaining money under false pretences!”

Did you enjoy your visit to Famous (and forgotten) Fiction?
Please consider subscribing, to help pay our web hosting and keep us writing!
Plus, you get your name listed on our Editors' Corner page.
Famous (and forgotten) Fiction
is produced and edited by Bob Gay and Dan Neyer
All contents are © 2012 by Bob Gay and Dan Neyer
All Rights Reserved
Individual copyrights are as noted
For site questions, please contact us through the Editors' Corner.