Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Continental Op stars in his first novel(?): BLOOD MONEY

A couple of years ago I began re-reading the complete adventures of the Continental Op, in order of publication, and noted steady improvement. The first few Op tales are well-written, and groundbreaking in that they present a realistic look at the work of a big agency detective, just the sort of work (minus the strikebreaking) that Hammett did for the Pinkertons.

Given his druthers, I suspect Hammett would have continued in that vein, turning out stories that would have been more appropriate in True Detective than in Black Mask. Thankfully, Black Mask’s readers wouldn’t let him. Being fans of such wildly unrealistic private dicks as Carroll John Daly’s Race Williams, they were a bloodthirsty bunch, demanding ever more action.

To keep the readers (and editor Cap Shaw) happy, Hammett was forced to take his Op beyond reality to the edge of Hardboiled Fantasyland. Whether that was a good or bad thing depends on your perspective. My take is - it was perfect.

The Op remained a real detective, and a real man, but he was thrust into ever more violent - and entertaining - situations, until reaching his absolute peak in my favorite Hammett novel, Red Harvest. I’ll be re-reading that book soon, and chances are it will still be my fave, but last week I got reacquainted with the book that could have been Hammett’s first novel, and it’s a damn strong contender. For the poetry of its violence, it has never been excelled.

Blood Money began life as two 1927 Black Mask novelettes, “The Big Knockover” and “$106,000 Blood Money.” At one point, Afred A. Knopf wanted to published them as a novel. Hammett refused, but in 1943, Lawrence E. Spivak, the company that had been churning out his pulp stories in digest format, did the deed under the title $106,000 Blood Money. Both stories were reprinted in EQMM around the same time, and underwent light editing from Frederic Dannay. In short order, Tower Books did a hardcover edition as Blood Money and Dell followed suit with a gorgeous mapback. 

Spivak did another digest version, this time called The Big Knockover, and Dell reissued the Blood Money mapback with a new, less-gorgeous cover, so the “novel” was actually published five times. Though I have all five, I chose to read the Tower hardcover for the ultimate experience.

Part 1, originally “The Big Knockover” is a trip to Fantasyland, with a hundred or more mobsters coming from across the country to converge on San Francisco and rob two banks at once. When the mastermind and his core supporters escape, the Op stays on their trail, and delivers their just deserts in Part 2, originally“$106,000 Blood Money.”  Part 2 is more grounded in reality, but is every bit as entertaining. Hammett’s prose had been steadily improving, and by this point it was flat-out amazing. Even though I just finished the book, I already want to read it again.

Since 1966, when Random House issued their version of The Big Knockover, a 13-story hardcover collection edited by Lillian Hellman, the two tales have appeared as separate novelettes. Too bad. Together, they're every bit as novelesque as the two official Op novels, Red Harvest and The Dain Curse. Currently, the Blood Money saga appears as a small part of the 2001 collection Crime Stories and Other Writings. It deserves better. But on the plus side, that volume restored both stories to their original Black Mask text.


Rick Robinson said...

Nice. My FFB is going to be on THE BIG KNOCKOVER, though it will lack your expertise.

Dan_Luft said...

I have the first MapBack edition. I would've preferred it to be called The Big Knockover - much more fun title.

Evan Lewis said...

The Big Knockover is a great title. It gets confusing because there are three different books with that title: The Mercury digest reprint of Blood Money; The 1966 hardcover collection; and the 1967 Dell pb containing only half the stories in the hardcover.

Rick Robinson said...

And the Vintage Books 1989 trade paper edition.