Dashiell Hammett brought the noir detective into the limelight with "Maltese Falcon," but it wasn't the first or only novel he wrote about hard-edged, hard-boiled detectives. Among his early works was the Continental Op in "The Dain Curse," a scattered but interesting three-tier mystery.
Diamonds have been stolen, and the Continental Op has been called in to find out what has happened. But he finds that the whole story that is given to him has a "wrong" feeling to it -- mysterious men, a diamond he finds on the ground. When the Op digs further, he finds a web of murder, jealousy and hate that spreads back over young Gabrielle Leggett's life.
After the trauma of her father's murder, the Op takes Gabrielle to the Temple of the Holy Grail, a San Francisco cult. At first it seems like a slightly goofy but harmless little pseudo-religion -- until a hideous specter in the Op's room, and a murder that seems to have been committed by Gabrielle, shows that something sinister is lurking there. And finally, the "Dain curse" seemingly strikes again when Gabrielle's young husband is found dead...
Before anyone knew about Sam Spade, Hammett was churning out pulp fiction about the Continental Op in his trademark spare, sharp prose. "The Dain Curse" feels like three loosely connected short stories -- only Gabrielle Leggett ties them together, and the idea of the "Dain curse" (which is never fully dealt with -- though it makes an enticing title) which supposedly kills everyone around Gabrielle.
Hammett's writing is as dry and spare as always. However, the stories sometimes seem too short, especially the second one, which ends on a hurried note (we're only told of Gabrielle's marriage as a sort of postscript). And the types of stories are uneven: one is a smart mystery, one is a thriller with a freako cult, and one is more a character study.
Gabrielle is hardly a compelling character at first; she's pretty helpless and dull. Hammett doesn't give her a lot of attention for the first and second stories. But she's given some good expansion in the final story, where her "dope" addiction is dealt with. At the same time, the seemingly amoral Op is given further depth. Though even he may not know it, the intense conversations in the last third show that he's a lot more than he seems.
"The Dain Curse" is a somewhat uneven mix of lurid mystery and practiced, intelligent suspense. Hardly Hammett's best, but worth checking out.