"`Do you know what white people call a black man with a Ph.D.?'Dashiell Hammett's 1933 short story "Night Shade" ends with a similar confrontation (though the tone is more rueful than harsh), and it had some influential readers. Twenty years after the story appeared, according to Hammett's Lost Stories (published in 2005 and not to be confused with the new batch of lost stories), Roy Cohn quizzed Hammett about it. Yes, the infamous lawyer's questions included "When you wrote this short story, `Night Shade,' were you a member of the Communist Party?"
"He said something like, `I do not believe I happen to be aware of the term in question.'
"`Then I laid the word down on him as brutally as I had ever done: Nigger.'"
"Night Shade" demonstrates Hammett's skill at imagining and executing a surprise twist, and that's a double accomplishment. He wrote a short, atmospheric tale, recognizably of the nocturnal, criminal Hammett milieu, about a pressing social problem, and he carried it off without a hint of the sanctimonious, the didactic or the preachy. And the ending, contrived as it seems, works. The man could have been O. Henry had he wanted to.
© Peter Rozovsky 2011