The Big Book of the Continental Op
By Dashiell Hammett
Edited by Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett
Vintage. 752 pp. $25
Reviewed by John Timpane
If you like The Maltese Falcon, or The Thin Man, or hard-boiled detective fiction in general – heck, if you like vivid storytelling – you may really like this book. It is a glimpse at a fine writer's early development – and the creation of modern crime fiction.
Dashiell Hammett, who created Sam Spade, Nick and Nora Charles, and Ned Beaumont, also created the Continental Op. The name is just a job description: He's a "fat little" operative for the Continental Detective agency's San Francisco office. Never named, he was Hammett's first great character, starring in 28 short stories published from 1923 to 1930, mostly in Black Hand magazine, and eight other stories that furnished serialized versions of two 1929 novels: Red Harvest, one of Hammett's best; and the lesser but still vigorous Dain Curse.
In The Big Book of the Continental Op, we have, for the first time, all 28 stories as well as the original serialized versions of the two novels. So you have all of the Op in your hands. It's a grand op-portunity.
Hammett did not invent crime writing, but he brought to it much that was distinctive, starting with work experience. He had been a detective for Pinkerton between 1915 and 1922, with military service during World War I in between. And from the very first Continental Op story, "Arson Plus," the tools of the trade, the detective's mind and his clear-sightedness regarding human motivation, are all already there. "Tracing baggage is no trick at all," he tells us, "as many a bird who is wearing somewhat similar numbers on his chest and back, because he overlooked that detail when making his getaway, can tell you." As you can see, the sardonic, dry humor is also already there.
His wry descriptions of people are justly famous: "His wife was a tall, stringy woman, perhaps five years older than her husband – say, forty – with a mouth and chin that seemed shaped for gossiping." She is married to man with a "smooth, meaningless face." In the serialized Poisonville stories, which later became Red Harvest, we meet Dinah Brand, who "looked like a lot of money in a big gray fur coat."
The man could write a lick, in the modern idiom, clean, emotions implied but seldom belabored (a detective can't afford to get involved), eyes wide open for the telling clue.
Hammett's notes and correspondence – some of which we get to read here – show he listened to editors and worked hard on his stories. Especially fascinating are his letters about characterization, what to cut, what to leave, what details tell us what about whom. Such a professional, making sure every screw and bolt is there for a reason.
The Op is a quick, alert thinker. He is also an adept liar who will lie to all sides ("I assured her that I believed every word she said"), even resort to frame-ups if it helps him solve a case. He is very detached: You sometimes agree with what characters say of him, that the feelings just aren't there. He also is no respecter of either his bosses or the rules: At the end of Poisonville, he spends two days "fixing up my reports so they wouldn't sound as if I had broken as many laws, rules and bones as I had."
Hammett wrote these stories for "the pulps"; they are creatures of their medium. But he helped elevate that medium. The stories share a common shape, with a crime, a twist at some point, and a solution. They are a contest: Can you guess before we tell you? I'm lousy at guessing; I read for people and situations. Hammett rewards it with an engrossing world of character, incident, and motive. Money, power, sex, revenge – all the dark, dirty drives are here. Here would be San Francisco, where Hammett was living when he wrote almost all these tales. (He had tuberculosis, contracted in a military camp; it forced him to live away from his wife and children.) The city comes alive, its streets, alleys, mugs, misfits, cops, and private dicks. These stories crowned that town the capital of crime.
It is great fun to read through Hammett's early career, to see his growth as a writer, reaching an early peak with Poisonville/Red Harvest. It's a big book, all right, and an even bigger pleasure.