“The Gatewood Caper” is an exciting detective story by American author Dashiell Hammett. It was written and is set during the 1920’s in California, on the west coast of the U. S. A. It centres around a rich entrepreneur whose daughter is kidnapped and a 50,000 dollar ransom is placed on her by her captors. The main character, an anonymous detective cleverly solves the mystery by revealing that in fact Gatewood’s daughter has arranged her own kidnapping to free herself from her father’s oppression.
The plot of this piece is just as relevant now as it would have been in the 1920s: there is still a very real threat for many wealthy families of the kidnapping of their offspring nowadays. Much is made in the national press about the cost of personal security to protect the families of the rich and famous.
Hammett enthralls the reader by maintaining curiosity, a lively pace and suspense levels throughout “The Gatewood Caper” by moving through the plot quickly with snippets of information, by his use of desperation in the dialogue between the main characters, by referring to the potential dangers of this type of situation and by changing the scene often. Intrigue is inbuilt to the plot. From the outset we understand how difficult it is to glean useful and workable information about the circumstances of the kidnapping from the frantic, boorish and domineering father, “…
he wanted results, it seemed, and not questions, and so I wasted nearly an hour getting information that he could have given me in fifteen minutes. ” The dialogue between the detective and Harvey Gatewood is also important to the style of the piece. “I’ve never been clubbed into doing anything in my life! And I’m too old to start now! ” characterises Mr Gatewood’s way of working. He does not accept professional advice easily and therefore life has not been made easy for the detective or for the reader.
Another way that Hammett puts excitement into the story is by having little unnecessary scene setting. He does this in the first few chapters by laying down the plot for the whole story: quickly introducing the client and the case and by using several short sentences in a row. The author is particularly successful at building tension as he conjures scenes of fast moving action especially at the crucial point where the ransom is to be dropped off. The characters must quickly devise a plan in this fraught situation to entrap or identify the captors.
All four detectives and undercover police working on the job are put into place along the dimly lit streets and alleyways to shadow each other. At several points, people enter the scene and our suspicions are immediately aroused but they appear to be red herrings devised to build more tension and drama. The captor finally appears in the guise of a woman to lift the ransom and quickly disappears again, “…. scuttled to the black mouth of an alley. “