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George Kelley Paperback & Pulp Fiction Collection

The Dain Curse

cover image By: Hammett, Dashiell (male)
Publisher: Vintage Books (V-827)
Place of Publication: New York, NY
Catalog #: Kelley Box 265: PS3515 .A4347 D34 1972
Contributor: A. Weiler


Era: 1920s Author as on Cover: Dashiell Hammett Geographic Locale: San Francisco, California and Quesada, California Date of Publication: 1972  |  Original Date: 1929 Setting: urban; various settings include the world of the privileged professional, the world of the African-American maid and her boyfriend; the world of the religious cult, and a deceptively quiet small town Motives: theft, murder, romantic passion

Plot Summary

An anonymous private detective, hired by an insurance agency, investigates the theft of eight diamonds from Edgar Leggett, a chemist involved in corporate research using the diamonds. The so-called theft of the diamonds is only a ruse to cover up a larger crime: the murder of Leggett's first wife, apparently by him, and his subsequent escape from his homeland of France. His daughter, Gabrielle, addicted to morphine, believes herself to be a victim of the "Dain Curse", a family curse which supposedly compels members of the Dain family to commit crimes, including murder, to get their way. Leggett's current wife turns out to be his first wife's sister, and his first wife is Gabrielle's mother. This is only the beginning of a very convoluted course as the reader is led through a labyrinthian maze of murders, drug abuse, religious cults and small town politics. The murder of Leggett's first wife, which seems to be the primary focus at the beginning of the novel, becomes a tiny portion of the massive puzzle featuring bizarre characters and even more outlandish murders. The surprise ending is truly that.

Major Characters

The Continental Op adult male, physical characteristics unknown, operative (private detective) for the Continental Detective Agency

Alice Leggett adult female, French, 40 years old, darkish blonde hair, pleasant plump face, dimpled pink cheeks; housewife

Dick Cotton adult male, 40s; pompous, unintelligent; marshall

Owen Fitzstephan adult male; 32 years old, long, lean, sorrel-haired, sleepy gray eyes, wide humorous mouth; carelessly worn clothes; acts lazy but isn't, talkative, knows a lot about things that are "out of the ordinary"; writer

Lily Leggett adult female, French, housewife

Edgar Leggett adult male, French; middle 40s; dark-skinned, erect, muscular, slender, medium height; deeply lined face across forehead and mouth corners; dark, longer hair, curled around the forehead; bright, red-brown eyes, horn-rimmed glasses, long, thin high-bridged nose, thin sharp lips, small bony chin; well-made black and white clothes; chemist

Alice Leggett adult female, French, housewife

Dr. Riese adult male, medical doctor

Joseph Haldorn adult male; tall, built like a statue; long, thick white hair and beard; white, even teeth; warm, strong handshake; healthy, smooth pink face; brown eyes, baritone voice; cult leader

Eric Collinson (Carter) adult male; young, blonde, tall, broad, sunburned, dressy, good-looking, unintelligent

Gabrielle Leggett adult female, French, young, medium height, slender, curly hair, light brown; pointed chin, white skin, large-green-brown eyes, hardly any forehead; small nose, mouth and teeth; ears have no lobes and are pointed at the top

Minnie Hershey adult female, African-American, "small, wiry mulatto", straight black hair, brown features; maid

Rhino Tingley adult male, African-American, young, big, black with a scar on his chin, close to 6 feet tall, 200 pounds; big, yellow-balled pop eyes, broad nose, big mouth, heavy bass voice; unemployed pool player

Mickey Linehan adult male; big, loose-hung, red-faced, operative (assistant to the detective)

Al Mason adult male; slim, dark, sleek; operative (assistant to the detective)

Aaronia Haldorn adult female; oval, olive-skinned, beautiful mask-like face; uncut black hair; tall, fully-fleshed supple body; cult leader

Ben Rolly adult male, 30s, hair, skin and eyes washed-out tan shades; deputy sheriff

J. King Rolly adult male, 50s, hair, skin and eyes washed-out tan shades; entrepreneur

Mary Nunez adult female, Mexican, early 30s; short, solidly built, intelligent dark eyes; wide flat face; maid

Sheriff Feeney adult male, fat, florid, big brown mustache; sheriff


four shootings, one stabbing, one strangulation, one fall from a cliff

Level of Violence

extremely violent incidents, such as murders, are described after the fact in a paragraph or so; the description is cool and detached, as a police report might describe them with the calm objective tone of a trained professional. When murder is committed in self-defense, the action is described in greater detail, but again the tone is cold and objective; not much time is spent on the physical details. One exception to this is the bomb incident, where the carnage is very clearly described and is quite shocking. When someone angers the Continental Op, he often reacts physically against that person. These smaller-scale violent acts and/or threats are described with great relish.


overall tone is calmly objective; the characters are driven by the need to romantically "possess" someone, but this somehow seems removed from actual passion, sexual acts or emotions of any kind. It is more of an "emotional greed", a desire to "have" someone for your own; the lone exception is the love between the heroine and her fiance, which appears to be a deeper, selfless type of love. No explicit sexuality or inuendo.

Gender Roles

traditional; all but two of the "good" women are not employed outside the home. The heroine and her mother are wealthy; the rest are housewives. The only "good" women who are employed are the maids. Most of the "bad" women are employed outside the home. Physical attractiveness is no indicator of character with women. All of the men work at something, even small jobs, except the maid's boyfriend, who is a gambler. The hero is very tough and doesn't suffer fools gladly; if he finds someone to be unbearable, he doesn't hesitate to punch them. The men who take action are the most positive characters; men who hesitate, are nervous or afraid, are presented in a very bad light. Intelligence seems to be the most predictable barometer of a positive male character, and those men who are described as "unintelligent" turn out to be negative characters. However, as is usual in this story, the one exception is the main villain who is extremely intelligent. The one time the hero exhibits chivalry is when he encourages the heroine to quit her morphine addiction, and then actually sees her all the way through a difficult withdrawal. People who appear to be the perfect model of a traditional gender role in this story often turn out to be the complete opposite. Gender and profession is no indicator of character in this novel.


most characters are caucasian; two African-Americans and one Hispanic character hold servile positions. Aside from their inferior social positions, the African-American characters are described physically in fairly objective terms; however, whenever the detective's assistants or the police speak of Minnie and/or Rhino, they use racial epithets typical of the period, including "shine", "dinge", "dark meat" and "boogie". The detective's assistants speak of Mary Nunez as "the spick"; the deputy calls her "the Mex". Mary's husband Pedro (whom we never see) is doing a life term in prison for murder. The only actual use of knives as weapons is by minority women. The detective uses negative stereotyping when speaking of his interactions with the African-American characters. He speaks of "going to a Negro neighborhood, which made the getting of reasonably accurate information twice as unlikely as it always is." When speaking of a cult scam, he states that Minnie "was a mulatto, and therefore susceptible to that sort of game." He also refers to another minor character, a cleaner, as a 'Jap", and once infers that the Leggett's behavior is typical of their French ancestry, although not in a negative way. The detective describes the settlement where Mary lives as a place "where ragged and dirty children played....with ragged and dirty mongrels helping them make noise," exposing sentiment that is somewhat less than sympathetic. Overall, there are a lot of casual negative racial/ethnic remarks and commentary, but one gets the feeling that this was all business as usual in the detective's line of work, given the tough characters he dealt with on a daily basis. The racial slurs, although regrettable, probably reflect what was common practice during that time period in the United States.

Alcohol/Drug Abuse

the heroine is addicted to morphine. This is viewed as a bad thing, and eventually the detective is able to talk her into voluntary withdrawal from the drug. Gabrielle blames her drug habit on the "Dain Curse", in the same way that she blames all of her behavioral eccentricities and bad luck on the curse. An unspecified type of gas is piped into the rooms at the cult to introduce hallucinations and to make guests more liable to believe the "visions" that the cult leaders then act out. Alcohol is used most heavily by one of the detective's assistants, who requests an entire bottle of hard liquor to take with him on a stakeout. This request is granted with no judgment or commentary. The detective and Fitzstephan also drink socially on a regular basis, but not to excess. Whiskey is the alcoholic beverage used primarily; white wine is served once. Rhino Tingley (African-American character) smells of "Italian red wine", which the detective is evidently able to identify by smelling his breath. This is the only alcohol-related scene described in a negative light.

Law Enforcement

San Francisco police are gruff, but described in positive terms by the Detective. They, along with the Detective's assistants, use racial epithets on a regular basis. The local sheriff, deputy, marshal and district attorney in the small town of Quesada are presented in a very different light. At best, they are described as self-serving, unintelligent, and hungry for publicity. One of them strangles his wife and attempts to murder another citizen. Although the small town officers offer more help in solving the murders, this is only because the Detective is unfamiliar with the area, while the officers know everyone in town. The Detective does the actual solving of the crime; the local officers just serve as his "tour guides." Both city and town officers seem to respect the Detective and want to help if they can.

Added Features

this story is remarkable in the number of characters, and detailed descriptions of them, even of those who play a minor role. There is almost always a physical description of the character, no matter how insignificant. Many (if not most) of the male characters are described as being forty years old, or "around forty." (This is also the age of the Detective). Much commentary is made by the Detective about Gabrielle's strange physical attributes: her ears are pointed at the top, with no earlobes ("animal ears" they are called.) Also, she has a very small forehead. Yet it is obvious that she is not unattractive; she has a devoted fianc and attracts other men's attention as well. It is difficult to determine the purpose of these attributes, other than to reinforce the possibility of inheriting bizarre physical traits from one's family, including the Dain Curse. Many bizarre characters and plot twists.

Subject Headings

California-San Francisco/ California-Quesada (Fictional Town)/ Continental Op/ Cults/ Drug Addiction/ Family Curses/ Paranoia/ Detectives, Private/ Murder/ Robbery/ Mental Illness

Psychological Elements

the story is narrated by the Detective in the first person, maintaining a coolly objective viewpoint which borders on the clinical throughout. He is cynical, exhibiting an almost existential detachment to the bizarre occurrences around him. Nothing seems to surprise him, except his own sentimentality toward the heroine toward the end, in helping her to quit her drug habit. The Dain Curse itself provides most of the psychological mood of the piece. Our first introduction to the Curse is from Alice, the second wife, Gabrielle's aunt. She exhibits a chameleon-like change of character from good to evil that is evocative of multiple personality disorder, except that she is aware of everything she does. There is no doubt that Alice is indeed one person, and she appears to be a psychopath. She is not only free of guilt, but she actually revels in her evil deeds. Gabrielle exhibits paranoia, but it is self-paranoia. She is convinced that she cannot control her deeds, and is always asking people to keep her away from others so she won't hurt them. Her continued drug use appears to be an attempt to medicate her fears. Eric Collinson exhibits an almost neurotic inability to take action. Joseph Haldorn eventually descends into psychosis, speaking of himself in the third person and believing himself to be the deity he has been impersonating for years. The most frightening character of all is the person that we thought was one of the heroes. Fitzstephan exhibits such a complete reversal of character that it is almost impossible to comprehend a mind that is capable of committing such depravity to get what he wants. Fitzstephan is the one character who seems eminently normal, whom we can trust and rely on to help our hero. His intellect and comfortable personality make his depravity even more disturbing. Interestingly, he is a writer, and even more interestingly, he is seen writing a psychological piece during the novel.

Film Adaptations

The Dain Curse, 1978, television mini-series