“A whirling black arm of the night”: an Excerpt from Dashiell Hammett’s “Nightmare Town” (1924)

  • Originally published on the Bartitsu.org site on Monday, 16th January 2012

Thanks to Chris Amberger (The Secret History of the Sword) for unearthing the adventures of Steve Threefall, the adventurer-hero of Dashiell Hammett’s 1924 novelette “Nightmare Town”, whose fighting cane …

“… was thick and made of ebony, but heavy even for that wood, with a balanced weight that hinted at loaded ferrule and knob. Except for a space the breadth of a man’s hand in its middle, the stick was roughened, cut, and notched with the marks of hard use — marks that much careful polishing had failed to remove or conceal. The unscarred handsbreadth was of a softer black than the rest — as soft a black as the knob — as if it had known much contact with a human palm.”

As Threefall and his associate Roy Kamp take the night air after a poker game …

“Strolling thus, a dark doorway suddenly vomited men upon them.

Steve rocked back against a building front from a blow on his head, arms were round him, the burning edge of a knife blade ran down his left arm. He chopped his black stick up into a body, freeing himself from encircling grip. He used the moment’s respite this gave him to change his grasp on the stick; so that he held it now horizontal, his right hand grasping its middle, its lower half flat against his forearm, its upper half extending to the left.

He put his left side against the wall, and the black stick became a whirling black arm of the night. The knob darted down at a man’s head. The man threw an arm to fend the blow. Spinning back on its axis, the stick reversed — the ferruled end darted up under warding arm, hit jawbone with a click, and no sooner struck than slid forward, jabbing deep into throat. The owner of that jaw and throat turned his broad, thick-featured face to the sky, went backward out of the fight, and was lost to sight beneath the curbing.

Lower half of stick against forearm once again, Steve whirled in time to take the impact of a blackjack-swinging arm upon it. The stick spun sidewise with thud of knob on temple — spun back with loaded ferrule that missed opposite temple only because the first blow had brought its target down on knees. Steve saw suddenly that Kamp had gone down. He spun his stick and battered a passage to the thin man, kicked a head that bent over the prone, thin form, straddled it; and the ebony stick whirled swifter in his hand — spun as quarterstaves once spun in Sherwood Forest. Spun to the clicking tune of wood on bone, on metal weapons; to the duller rhythm of wood on flesh. Spun never in full circles, but always in short arcs — one end’s recovery from a blow adding velocity to the other’s stroke. Where an instant ago knob had swished from left to right, now weighted ferrule struck from right to left — struck under upthrown arms, over lowthrown arms — put into space a forty-inch sphere, whose radii were whirling black flails.

Behind his stick that had become a living part of him, Steve Threefall knew happiness — that rare happiness which only the expert ever finds — the joy in doing a thing that he can do supremely well. Blows he took — blows that shook him, staggered him — but he scarcely noticed them.  His whole consciousness was in his right arm and the stick it spun. A revolver, tossed from a smashed hand, exploded ten feet over his head, a knife tinkled like a bell on the brick sidewalk, a man screamed as a stricken horse screams.

As abruptly as it had started, the fight stopped. Feet thudded away, forms vanished into the more complete darkness of a side street; and Steve was standing alone — alone except for the man stretched out between his feet and the other man who lay still in the gutter.”

Now that is how to write a fight scene! Stay tuned for more exciting excerpts from “Nightmare Town” …

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