Have I got a treat for those who prefer to celebrate their holidays in hard-boiled, rather than Hallmark, style. It’s a heavyweight of a collection called The Big Book of the Continental Op that gathers together the 28 short stories, two novels and one unfinished tale starring Dashiell Hammett’s first series detective, known only as “The Continental Op.”
For those readers who haven’t yet run into him, the Op is middle-aged, overweight and nameless. His moniker derives from his job: he’s an “operative” or detective, who works for the Continental Detective Agency. He’s easy to underestimate, but that would be a mistake. In the Op, Hammett revolutionised the traditional figure of the detective, strong-arming him out of his Sherlockian smoking jacket and into an American-made trench coat, shoving him out of his armchair and down those dark alleys where the most realistic crimes are waiting to be solved. Hammett paid tribute to his first great literary creation by referring to him as “a little man going forward day after day through mud and blood and death and deceit.”
Hammett wrote The Continental Op stories in the earliest years of his career, and to read them in sequence is to witness how Hammett slowly transformed the formulaic “gals, guts and guns” action tales, the staple of pulp magazines such as the Black Mask, into the stuff of literature. Even the early Op stories here give readers the chance to walk around the mythic San Francisco that Hammett created — a place of fog and furnished apartments, sinister Nob Hill mansions and Chinatown gambling dens.
This collection is edited by the distinguished Hammett scholar Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett, who is Hammett’s granddaughter. In a couple of short-but-substantive opening essays, Layman sketches out the sources of the Continental Op stories in Hammett’s own five-year career working for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. That career was interrupted by his army service in World War I, where he contracted tuberculosis. In 1922, Hammett, by then on disability and a married father of a young daughter, took a course at the Munson School for Private Secretaries, with a “newspaper writing objective.” Layman suggests that journalistic training came in handy when Hammett began submitting stories to the pulp magazine Black Mask in 1923.
Those early stories were published under the editorial reign of George W. Sutton, a busy guy who wrote about cars and boats on the side. There’s little to suggest that either Sutton or Hammett realised that the popular Op stories were also remaking the detective fiction form. The first Op story, ‘Arson Plus’, is dated Oct 1, 1923, and Hammett wrote it under the pseudonym Peter Collinson — theatre slang for “a phantom person.” The plots of ‘Arson Plus’ and the other Sutton-era stories are simple and their pilferings from the more genteel British mystery tradition evident. For example, in ‘Slippery Fingers’, the Op is hired to solve the murder by penknife of a tycoon whose body is found in that mustiest of locales: the library. Hammett’s rougher Pinkerton experience, however, comes through in passages such as this one from ‘Crooked Souls’, in which the Op, who’s shadowing a suspect, describes a nifty bit of multitasking: “A touring-car, large, black, powerfully engined, and with lowered curtains, came from the rear. ... Possibly a scout! I scrawled its licence number down on my pad without taking my hand out of my overcoat pocket.”
Also present in even the earliest Op stories are the working-class resentments and nativist politics that, like it or not, would become essential elements of the hard-boiled formula. The Op is always cleaning up messes made by the wealthy; when an heiress apparently falls afoul of kidnappers in ‘Crooked Souls’, Hammett stokes up 1920s nativist fears by having the Op discover a ransom note threatening to sell the girl to “a Chinaman who will buy her.”
When Phillip C. Cody became the editor of Black Mask in 1924, Hammett’s simple tales more than doubled in length, and became more complex and nastier. The Op doesn’t even carry a gun in his early outings, but, as Layman says, “Hammett’s first story for Cody features six murders, three of which are committed with cause by the Op.”
For those who want to delve even deeper into the pulp appearances of the Continental Op, this collection also includes the Black Mask serialised versions of Red Harvest (originally entitled Poisonville) and The Dain Curse, Hammett’s creakiest novel which he later dismissed as “a silly story.” As Layman demonstrates, the language of both novels was substantially changed when they were published in book form by Knopf.
There’s one striking word, however, that remains unchanged in the opening paragraph of both versions of Red Harvest. It’s a word that also appears frequently throughout the Continental Op stories: meaningless. A bit of humorous wordplay is “meaningless” in the opening of Poisonville; a servant’s face is “meaningless” in ‘Arson Plus’; a smile is “meaningless” in ‘Dead Yellow Women’ and on and on, into Hammett’s masterpiece, The Maltese Falcon, where the entire quest for the falcon itself is meaningless. “Meaningless” is a word that packs an existential wallop for Hammett and his fellow modernist writers. As this magnificent collection attests, the world that the Continental Op investigates may be “meaningless,” but that nameless “little man’s” work — and Hammett’s achievement — remain momentous.
Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and is the book critic for the National Public Radio programme Fresh Air
*By arrangement with The Washington Post
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 17th, 2017