Poetry and the P.I., it would seem, are as incompatible as a chili dog and a just-pressed shirt. Exhibit A: Red Harvest from 1929, in which the Continental Op is hired to clean up Personville, a town so corrupt that most people know it as Poisonville. Seems that Personville's original gangsta—Old Elihu Willsson, who owns the bank, newspapers, a senator and the governor—is losing ground in his old age. The Op is reluctant to stick around and do the dirty work, so Old Elihu appeals to the Op's manhood. "I'll talk you your sense," he says. "I want a man to clean this pig-sty of a Poisonville for me, to smoke out the rats, little and big. Its a man's job. Are you a man?"
But the Op retorts:
What's the use of getting poetic about it? If you've got a fairly honest piece of work to be done in my line, and you want to pay a decent price, maybe I'll take it on. But a lot of foolishness about smoking rats and pig-pens doesn't mean anything to me.
In the Op's calculus, the values of money and honesty overlap with clear speaking; foolishness, rats, and pig-pens, on the other hand, line up with poetry.
Exhibit B: The Dain Curse, also from 1929, in which the Continental Op returns to investigate a string of mysterious deaths that follow Gabrielle Leggett wherever she goes. The people using Gabrielle as cover explain to her that her bad luck is the product of a family curse, an explanation Gabrielle buys but which the Op thinks is a bunch of hooey—about as real as a peroxide blonde. Check out this exchange with Fitzstephan, a novelist interested in psychoanalysis who becomes the Op's drinking acquaintance and sounding board:
Fitzstephan drank beer and asked:
"You'd reduce the Dain curse, then, to a primitive strain in the blood?"
"To less than that, to words in an angry woman's mouth."
"It's fellows like you that take all the color out of life." He sighed behind cigarette smoke. "Doesn't Gabrielle's being made the tool for her mother's murder convince you of the necessity—at least the poetic necessity—of the curse?"
"Not even if she was the tool, and that's something I wouldn't bet on."
In hindsight, this passage becomes even more damning of poetry (not to mention psychoanalysis) when
It's clear that the Continental Op's factual, logic-based approach to solving crime extends to language as well. When he reports in The Dain Curse, for example, that "Her face didn't tell me anything. It was distorted but in a way that might have meant almost anything," he's talking about the act of reading—the inability to read. And regardless of whether he's reading poetry or a suspect's face, distortion and indeterminacy almost always get in his way. The irony of all this, of course, is that the Continental Op's own language is so colorful at times that he himself could be called downright poetic. In fact, one character in Red Harvest calls him on this. "My God!" she exclaims, "for a fat, middle-aged, hard-boiled, pig-headed guy, you've got the vaguest way of doing things I ever heard of." What happens to this truth teller? It's no surprise to P&PC that she ends up dead as a doornail.