If you were a noir fan who found The Big Book of the Continental Op by Dashiell Hammett (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard) under your 2017 holiday tree, consider yourself blessed. If not, you owe it to yourself to buy it now, because this collection, lovingly assembled and edited by Julie Rivett (Hammett’s granddaughter) and Richard Layman (the leading Hammett scholar) is a treat from cover to cover as it opens a window onto a world and style of detective fiction now mostly gone.
All the Op stories first appeared in the legendary pulp magazine The Black Mask,starting with “Arson Plus” in the October 1923 issue and ending with “Death and Company” in November 1930, the year of The Maltese Falcon.
Now, for the first time, all twenty-eight tales featuring Hammett’s pioneering creation have been joined in one volume. The bulk of them were collected in three earlier editions, one of them edited by Hammett’s companion, playwright Lillian Hellman. Others remained scattered in far-flung corners, in addition to a couple of uncompleted stories and early versions of Hammett’s first two novels that have not seen print since their first magazine publication in the late 1920s. They too, have been all wrapped up in one bulky but worthwhile package. At 700 double-column pages, it’s one hot brick of a book.
Before the Op, there was no one in detective fiction quite like him. Literary detectives were creatures of the upper class or from officialdom and were mostly of British origin. The Op, a descendant of dime-novel frontier sheriffs and gunfighters, was American to his cold marrow. By the 1920s, the American frontier was long gone, and World War I had brought a bloody end to old ways. Rural populations were on the cusp of becoming a minority as giant cities sprung up from coast to coast. Prohibition kicked in, in part, as a reaction against these changes. These dry laws, however, ignited a fantastic era of corruption and lawlessness. Genre fiction readers needed a new hero for this violent and tempestuous time.
The Op was among the first and by far the best of the new breed. He rose from the ranks of the unwashed to take a place in a relatively new American institution—the corporation as fronted by the Continental Detective Agency. Like the Pinkertons, Hammett’s former employers on whom it’s based, the agency represents the wealthy and the powerful, extracting them from their own unique troubles.
The Op is smart, but no genius like Sherlock Holmes, smoking his pipe, shooting cocaine while slumped in his armchair. He does his thinking on his feet, in the moment. He’s a dogged fellow who takes a stoutly cynical anti-romantic stance toward the world and his work. Homely as an old suitcase, he’s like a mechanic, fearlessly getting his hands dirty—the kind who’ll steal the crutches off a crippled newsboy to get the job done. Hammett seems to have built him from brick, concrete and steel, adding only enough human qualities to help him function as a detective, an oblique symbol of his times and, finally, as the gnarly root of every tough-guy hero since then.
Because professional detectives prefer to remain safe in anonymity, we never learn the Op’s real name in these first-person fables. He seems to have no private life save for sleeping, eating, smoking and the occasional poker game. He falls in love once—or, more precisely, becomes obsessed—but it passes like a bad flu. He’s as single-minded as a hunting dog.
Today’s high-strung readers will feel tweaked by his callous pragmatism and disdain for most human feelings. (His closest modern equal can be found in the Donald Westlake/Richard Stark novels, following the terrifying hard-boiled adventures of a cold-eyed professional thief.) He’s in it for the work and the money it brings the company. His social attitudes occasionally slip into racism and his black humor still shocks. (“I haven’t laughed so hard since the hogs ate my kid brother!” he cackles near the end of Red Harvest, the first Hammett masterpiece novel.)
While Hammett’s leftist politics are the stuff of legend, he wrote the Op stories while he was still in his twenties, his attitudes still unformed. The Op is a creature of the establishment, freely cooperating (as real detectives do) with the police—who are often portrayed as being as able as he is, though sometimes also corrupt.
Whatever the political undercurrents, these are first and foremost true noir pulp tales: raw, energetic, ungainly. These stories dazzle and delight, burst with invention and energy, gleam with nuggets of color and fun. Many of them are novellas, long, elaborate action-packed tales, full of shoot-outs, stabbings and even homicide by typewriter. Even when they careen toward the implausible, they compel attention with vivid prose, breakneck pacing and Hammett’s fierce eye for surface detail and the local color of 1920s San Francisco.
The collection divides the Op stories into three sections, mirroring the three Black Mask editors for whom Hammett wrote: George W. Sutton, Philip C. Cody and Joseph Shaw. Each editor made his own demands of the magazine’s star author. Hammett, an invalid recovering from tuberculosis, poor and with a family to support, chafed under their demands, but he was in no position to rebel.
Nevertheless, he made the most of the fences surrounding him. His background as a Pinkerton detective provided enormous amounts of exact detail, painting a realistic patina over his fantastic plots. Hammett is sometimes called a “realistic” writer, which I think is a profound mistake: His stories and plots are too incredible, as baroque and strung with wild coincidence as any 19th-century melodrama.
Take “The Gutting of Couffignal”: It opens with the Op reading M.P. Shiels’ fantasy The Lord of the Seawhile standing midnight guard duty over a pile of expensive wedding gifts.After summing up the plot, he admits, “it sounds dizzy here, but in the book it was as real as a dime.” It’s clearly a tip off that we should take Hammett’s work here in a similar vein as we’re spun off into an equally dizzy romp about a Russian criminal gang overrunning an entire island. And it reads as real as a dime.
The Op stories are really works of fantasy and deserve to be seen as such. (Sergio Leone’s movies, indirectly inspired by Hammett’s work, play a similar game, laying gritty details over equally dubious scenarios.) This is not criticism but praise. The Op stories work a pulpy magic, seducing readers into a baroque world of skullduggery and revenge, where the unreal becomes real.
Hammett was a self-educated writer, broadly read and it shows. His style, especially in his early stories, is awkward, sometimes heavy with slang (all of which is defined in footnotes). Nevertheless, he writes with such energy, flamboyance and humor, with such a deft eye for detail, objections dissolve like mist.
Not every story hits its target. The early ones show a young writer finding his feet before hitting his stride in the middle years under Cody and Shaw. From this period came most of the best Op stories, including four which, when read together, constitute two separate novellas: “The House on Turk Street” and “The Girl with the Silver Eyes”; and “The Big Knockover” and “$106,000 Blood Money.”
“This King Business,” a late novella, sweeps the Op away to the fictional Middle European nation of Muravia for a wild satire of out of both John Buchan and Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King.” It crackles with arch and witty commentary on politics but drags toward the end.
As an encore, the volume includes Hammett’s first two novels, Red Harvestand The Dain Curse, as they first appeared in The Black Maskbefore their hardcover publication by Alfred Knopf, where they underwent significant red-penciling. The Dain Curse seems to be an even bigger jumble than it was in its final version. The Black Mask Red Harvest is also significantly different, yet in some ways better, as it clips along to a more cogent ending. For Hammett fans, they are fascinating documents.
Then came Sam Spade in The Maltese Falconin 1930. Hammett left the Continental Op behind, the string played out. Both his style and themes would crystallize in the great works to come. Nonetheless, some readers may feel a sad twinge when The Big Book of the Continental Opreaches the end. I know I did.
Thomas Burchfield’s Butchertown,a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up novel is now out. His contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Arkwon the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Deviland Dracula: Endless Night(e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon,Barnes and Noble, Powell's Books, and other retailers. His reviews have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journaland The Strand and he recently published a two-part look at the life and career of the great film villain (and spaghetti western star) Lee Van Cleef in Filmfax. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.