Dashiell Hammett: Suspense in Understatement

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Dashiell Hammett, $106,000 Blood Money (New York: Lawrence E. Spivak, 1943). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by H. Wong.

A white envelope encircled by a stark, ominous shadow rests on a vermillion background. On the envelope, a precise letterpress typeface – reminiscent of newspaper headlines – spells out “BLOOD MONEY.” Above it, the postage-ink-red outlines of money sacks peek out from behind a commanding black dollar sign. The numbers that follow on the right are faded like the texture of stamped lettering or smoke. The words “Bestseller Mystery,” the author’s name, and a blurb about him are in a lurid, serpentine gothic-script typeface. Below the envelope are the delicate silhouettes of a gun and a masquerade mask. This 1943 cover of Dashiell Hammett’s $106,000 Blood Money conveys greed, deception, and murder.

However, unlike the formulaic pulp fiction cover with garish colors, a sensational scene, and a half-clothed damsel-in-distress, this one is a studied understatement. There are only three colors – black, white, and red. The center alignment of the text and images, along with the regularity of the rectangular envelope, guides the eye methodically from top to bottom. Although lacking in energy and movement, the text and images confined within the definiteness of symmetry evoke apprehension and suspense. I believe the tense restraint of the cover characterizes Hammett’s writing:

 

My hands were in my overcoat pockets—one holding the flashlight, the other my gun.

I pushed the muzzle of the pocketed gun toward the man—pulled the trigger.

The shot ruined seventy-five dollars’ worth of overcoat for me. But it took the man away from my neck.

 

Hammett’s description of a killing made by the protagonist is matter-of-fact and efficient. The protagonist aims and kills mechanically, expending more emotion on his ruined overcoat than on the death of his enemy. Hammett does not bat an eye, and neither does his protagonist who is just going through another day on the job. There is no heroic bravado. The tension simmers and, without a release, I am left chewing my nails through the action. A vivid and dramatic cover would contradict Hammett’s restraint and the protagonist’s nonchalance. While I admittedly would have preferred a cover with a provocative femme fatale, I concede that this cover expresses the understated suspense of the story.

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