Friday, November 30, 2012

Forgotten Books: The Return of the Continental Op (1945) by Dashiell Hammett

I've been rereading ALL of the Continental Op (short for Continental operator) stories, and as I mentioned earlier this month in a review of the first paperback collection, The Continental Op (that's HERE), that amounts to 28 stories (some of which are long novelettes) and two novels.

That's a LOT of writing, accounting for a good two-thirds of Hammett's total output.

This collection, published as a Jonathan Press digest in 1945 and Dell Mapback in 1947, contains two novelettes and three stories, all of which originally appeared in Black Mask.

The earliest story, "The Tenth Clew," (respelled here as "The Tenth Clue"), was first published in January 1924. It belongs to what I call the Op's "invisible" stage. The prose is straightforward and spare. It's not lacking in style, but it displays none of the distinct personality that emerges in later stories. Hammett's goal here was to lay out a puzzle for the Op to solve using the sort of investigative methods and agency resources Hammett himself used while working for the Pinkertons.

I have to believe that "Death and Company," which did not appear in Black Mask until 1930, was written around the same time. Like "The Tenth Clew," it's an enjoyable tale with a clever finish, but the Op is pretty much a ghost.

But in "One Hour," a short piece published only three months after "The Tenth Clew," the Op starts feeling his oats. Not only does he get more playful with his language, but he's plunged into a situation where he has to rely on his fists - and his gun - along with his brain.

The main attractions of this collection are the two novelettes, "The Whosis Kid" (from March 1925) and "The Gutting of Couffignal" (December 1925), where both the language and the action gets more wild and woolly. Black Mask readers asked for more action, and Hammett delivered.

In "The Whosis Kid," the Op gets tied up with a gang of backstabbing thieves whose antics anticipate those of Caspar Gutman, Joel Cairo and their cohorts in The Maltese Falcon. And in "The Gutting of Couffignal," the scene of the crime is entire town, where a criminal gang goes looting on a grand scale.

These days, you won't find these stories in any one collection. Crime Stories and Other Writings your best source for "The Whosis Kid," "The Gutting of Couffignal" and "The Tenth Clew," because that book restores the original Black Mask text. "One Hour" appears in the 1999 collection Nightmare Town.

Meanwhile, near as I can tell, "Death and Company" has not been reprinted anywhere since the Dell Mapback appeared in 1947. That's not only a damn shame, it's a disgrace. If any of you hardcore Op fans would like to read it, write me and email you scans.

More Forgotten Books at pattinase!


George said...

The Continental Op stories might be the best of Hammett's writings. The stories reward re-reading.

Richard R. said...

I have a collection of the first 7 stories, but that's all. I'm not sure if there are more Op stories in the Library of America collection. I need to read this, and any other out there.

Richard R. said...

Or maybe I have these after all... it's kind of hard to tell. Maybe we can sort it out when you come by.

Shay said...

Munseys has some, here:

Evan Lewis said...

Thanks Shay. Yep, Munsey's does have One Hour and The Tenth Clew, because both are old enough to be public domain.

jhegenbe said...

The lost, last Op story. Scan that sucker fast before it gets away!

Lexman said...

Thanks for the posting.

Which books does one need to buy, to have all the Cont. Op stories and novels?

All the best


Evan Lewis said...

OK, Lex, here's the dope:
You'll find MOST of the stories in Crime Stories and Other Writings (2001). All but one of the others are in Nightmare Town (1999). The sole out-of-print short story is "Death & Company," last reprinted in The Return of the Continental Op. If you'd like a scan of that one, email me at All that's left are the two novels, Red Harvest (which gets my vote for Hammett's finest work) and The Dain Curse (a big disappointment).

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Evan Lewis said...

I have since been reminded there is one more out-of-print Op story: "It," also known as "The Black Hat That Wasn't There." I have scans of that to share too.

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