Friday, November 2, 2012

Forgotten Books: The Continental Op (1945, 1946) by Dashiell Hammett

The Continental Op has been used as the title of several collections, but the one we're talking about here is the original, published in digest in 1945 and paperback in 1946. This collection was one of many edited and compiled by Frederick Dannay (half of the Ellery Queen team) and Don Herron's frequent guest-blogger Terry Zobeck has demonstrated that Dannay altered the text of many of the stories.

The four tales in this book, however, appear to have largely escaped Dannay's heavy hand. The 2001 collection Hammett: Crime Stories & Other Writings contains the original Black Mask versions of all four stories, and while I didn't compare each tale word-for-word, I did some spot checks and failed to find any changes other than punctuation or spelling.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Continental Op series is the way it displays Hammett's growth as a writer. All 28 stories (and at least one of the two novels) are good, but the quality of Hammett's prose changes dramatically from the Op's first appearance in 1923 to the first installment of the Op masterpiece Red Harvest in 1927. 

In the beginning, Hammett's Op was practically an invisible man. He displayed no personality, and his matter-of-fact prose was designed to educate the reader on realistic investigative practices. But bit by bit, story by story, the Op's character begins to emerge.

Two of the stories in this collection, "Zigzags of Treachery" and "Death on Pine Street" (originally titled "Women, Politics and Murder"), were first published in 1924 and are transitional tales. The Op indulges himself with a wisecrack now and then, and we see Hammett stretching his writing muscles. A third story, "The Farewell Murder," did not appear in Black Mask until 1930, but was clearly written far earlier - most likely in 1923.

The beginning of the "The Farewell Murder" may have been inspired by an old vampire movie. It opens with a chauffeur driving the Op up a dark and winding road to the client's home. On the way they see a body in the road, which scares the heebie-jeebies out of the driver. When the Op goes to investigate, the chauffeur vanishes into the woods. The rest of the story involves men who did each other dirt in Egypt and have now brought their blood feud to the States. The Op uncovers a clever scheme by one of the feuders. 

"Zigzags of Treachery" is a peculiar combination of old and new. The first few pages are a monologue by the attorney/client involving some old time melodrama. The middle of the story displays some realistic detective work with only occasional bits of flavor. And the end is a monologue by the chief crook, explaining his part in the scheme. This time it's the Op who delivers the clever finish.

"Death on Pine Street" begins with a familiar problem - the murder of a philandering husband, but displays hints of the Op's wit, humor and capacity for violence. In the end he socks a guy purely for payback. And yeah, it's another clever ending.

But the highlight of the collection is "Fly Paper." This story appeared in Black Mask in 1929, after both Red Harvest and The Dain Curse, and shows the Op at his best. Every line of the narration is tight, tough and packed with wit. The story peers under the lid of the seamy underworld, into a complex plot that ends with a wild manhunt and shootout. Little wonder Lillian Hellman selected it for inclusion in The Big Knockover (where she subjected it to further, and more drastic, changes in punctuation).

These four stories are well worth your time, and can be found in other collections. What you won't find elsewhere is the introduction by "Ellery Queen." And that, too, is worth your time. So here it is:

More Op stuff coming soon. More Forgotten Books right now at pattinase


Dan_Luft said...

I had no idea there was so much rewriting going on in Hammett reprints. I read him in the, mostly black, early 80s, rack-sized editions.

I do have this collection and a similarly aged Big Knockover. I should check them out if I dare to open the spines.

George said...

The Continental Op stories might contain Hammett's best writing.

Rick Robinson said...

I love the Continental Op stories and have a collection: The Continental Op, a HC collection of 7 short stories, edited by Stephen Marcus. Without going up to look I'm not sure if these - or if so which ones - are in that one or not.

Rick Robinson said...

I also have The Big Knockover and the Library of America volumes.

Evan Lewis said...

All four of these are in the Library of America book.

Your Big Knockover must be a digest, Dan, since the mapback of that title was called Blood Money. The digests are usually more flexible.

Most critics would disagree, but I consider Red Harvest to be Hammett's finest work.

Leigh Lundin said...

I read the Continental Op stories as a kid and they remain my favorites, setting a high bar for Mike Hammer, Shell Scott, Philip Marlowe, and Sam Spade. Never could I forget them.