Ron Welton
Ron Welton asked:

How does the long discourse on cannibalism fit in to the structure of the book?

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Brett Minor It doesn't really fit into the structure of the book. It could easily have been completely left out and it would not have made any difference to the plot.

However, during the time that this was written, many of the dime-store mystery writers of this pulp fiction were paid by the word. Every additional word made them just a little more money. Adding these little side bits was one of the tricks they used to get paid more.
Susan
This answer contains spoilers… (view spoiler)
Linda There is a similar story by Mark Twain, "Cannibalism in the Cars," in which the number of victims is stretched out by the storyteller to just fit the length of the train journey. The idea of stretching out the story to fit the situation definitely fits the idea of a text-padding joke on Hammett's reader, but we needto note that the off-topic story SHOULD interest Gilbert, but doesn't particularly do so, after he reads through the bizarre story once. The story does reveal Gilbert's inconsistent and just plain odd interest in psychology, his immaturity, and his current strong interest in having something to talk to Nick about, much the same as his immature sister. Cannibalism is as off-topic with him as it is with the rest of the characters. Yes, foreshadowing, but not strongly so.

I haven't read this story for years, but listened recently via YouTube to a very good reader who does a good job of giving these two young people a believable voice. She is an immature teenager for her age, he is an immature young adult. Listen or reread and think of teens you know. Spot on, in many ways, yes? Also, the author gives Nick and Nora a credible way of interacting with them, allowing the kids to be given space to express themselves, no matter how silly, naive, inexperienced. Is Gilbert an Asburger's sort of boy? He is played as such in the Hollywood film, but with weird touches to make him more macabre than he actually is in Hammett's story.
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