The Continental Op
Close to a decade before writing the pioneering work that is The Maltese Falcon, like many fellow authors of his time Dashiell Hammett cut his literary teeth writing short stories for pulp magazines for the majority of the 1920s. As a former Pinkerton detective himself, he had no shortage of colourful experiences to draw upon and use to craft a range of story ideas.
Assembled in 1974, The Continental Op is a compilation of seven of Hammett’s short stories from 1924 to 1927, each featuring the titular character who went on to receive longer treatment in the novels Red Harvest and The Dain Curse (which in this writer’s opinion, are superior efforts to the more praised The Glass Key and Thin Man novels…). Though he wasn’t quite the first, the Op is pretty much the archetypal hardboiled detective, whose influence can be felt in almost every private detective which followed – from Philip Marlowe, to Mike Hammer. From Lew Archer, to Hammett’s own Sam Spade. Like those who followed him, he’s a tough-talking, heavy drinking sort who knows how to handle a gun or two.
Unlike many of his successors though, he isn’t quite the ‘lone wolf’ stereotype that many private detectives following him became. Instead, he has an entire agency at his disposal, though he himself is just one cog in that machine, one of many detectives on the books lauded over by a cynical, no-nonsense boss known only as the ‘Old Man’. Whilst only featuring in two novels (Red Harvest and The Dain Curse), the Op was a mainstay of Hammett’s early stories.
The particular stories gathered in this particular collection are:
The Tenth Claw:
Called to the home of a client for an unexplained assignment, the Op arrives to find out that his client was murdered that same afternoon. His investigations lead him onto the trail of a clever trap and act of revenge by a pair of double-crossing con artists.
The Golden Horseshoe
Hired by a female client to track down her missing husband, the Op discovers an opportunistic criminal and a case of ruthless deception.
The House on Turk Steet
Another day, another stick up…working on a low-key missing person assignment, the Op stumbles in on a gang laying low following a bank robber and finds himself taken hostage, and has to rely on the double-crossings of the various gang members in order to get himself out alive.
The Girl with the Silver Eyes
Another missing person case, and in what turns out to be a semi-sequel to the preceding story, the Op is hired to track down a client’s missing fiancée and in the process uncovers the presence of the one surviving fugitive from a former case.
The Whossis Kid
The Op stumbles onto the trail of a renowned young hoodlum known as the Whossis Kid (as in, ‘who’s this kid?’) and generally lives to throw a few spanners in the plans of the gang he is involved in. Another gang-related tale of double crossing and betrayals.
The Main Deaths
An antique salesman dies under questionable circumstances, and the Op is sent him by the also-questionable employer to investigate.
The Farewell Murder
Probably the best of the bunch – the Op is called to the home of a wealthy family to protect a client, a former solider named Kavalov, from the vengeance of a disgraced former brother-in-arms.
The general themes and story outlines don’t sound like they change much, but Hammett presents such unique characters and clever twists that they rarely come across as repetitive. The stories are all individually entertaining and show flashes of the stories and ideas that would go on to feature in Hammett’s later work. The beginning of The Tenth Clew echoes the start of Red Harvest (called to the house of a client who later transpires to have died that same day), and The House on Turk Street features a Mexican stand-off situation which seems to foreshadow the ‘fall guy’ scene in The Maltese Falcon. Hammett has quite a knack for building tension in these scenes, thanks to the convincing dialogue he builds between characters, as well as his characteristic ‘short and sharp’ descriptive passages (which, at times, come across as more abrupt than anything – the ending to The Golden Horseshoe being a prime example). There’s plenty of deception, double-crossing and betrayals to keep the Op in the stories busy, and the twists and revelations that each story throws up are usually satisfying and unexpected. .At around 40 (or so) pages long each, each one is suitable for a decent single-sitting reading, and whilst arguably any of them could be fleshed out into longer stories, yet none of them feel incomplete or unduly short.
Perhaps partly because new stories occasionally become re-discovered, and perhaps party because not all stories featured the Op, there is no single, complete collection of Hammett’s short fiction available. Instead, several different compilations of varying short stories and novellas exist (Nightmare Town, The Big Knockover, The Hunter and Other Stories, amongst others). No one collection is any more definitive or worthy than any other, but for any fan looking to delve deeper into Hammett’s work, The Continental Op is a fine starting place.