- - Sunday, May 13, 2018


By Dashiell Hammett

Edited by Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, $25, 752 pages

Some months ago I visited my daughter and her Air Force husband in California. We visited San Francisco and saw Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown and other well-known attractions. Although I had never been there before, I had a sense of familiarity. This was Dashiell Hammett’s town. I grew up reading Mr. Hammett’s crime stories and San Francisco appeared prominently in many of the stories.

The late Dashiell Hammett, the author of “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Thin Man” and other classic crime novels, began his writing career punching out short stories for Black Mask magazine.

Before he wrote about his more well-known detectives Sam Spade and Nick and Nora Charles, he created a nameless detective who narrated his early short stories. The detective, also called an operative, or Op, worked for the Continental Detective Agency. The Op was a short, fat fellow, unlike Mr. Hammett, who was tall, lean and in his youth looked like a “blonde Satan,” which is how he described Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon.”

In “The Big Book of the Continental Op,” fans of crime fiction can read a collection of all of Mr. Hammett’s Op stories. The book was edited by Richard Layman, the president of Bruccoli Clark Layman, producers of the “Dictionary of Literary Biography,” and Julie M. Rivett, Mr. Hammett’s granddaughter, who is a Dashiell Hammett scholar and spokesperson for the Hammett estate.

“The long awaited volume you hold in your hands is the first and only collection to assemble every one of Dashiell Hammett’s pioneering Continental Op adventures — twenty-eight stand-alone stories, two novels, and Hammett’s only known unfinished Continental tale.” writes Ms. Rivett in her introduction. “It is truly definitive. And it has been many decades in the making.

“At the time of this writing, the first Op story is ninety-four years old and the last one is seventy-nine, not including ‘Three Dimes,’ an undated draft fragment conserved in Hammett’s archives, first published in 2016.

“The gritty sleuth Hammett described as ‘a little man going forward day after day through mud and blood and death and deceit’ has weathered gunshots, grifters, criminal conspiracies, class struggles, temptations, neglect, and more. This volume is testament to his tenacity. He is a survivor, a working-class hero, and a landmark literary creation.”

As Ms. Rivett notes, Dashiell Hammett was a Pinkerton detective and the Continental agency was modeled on Pinkerton. Mr. Hammett worked on cases involving forgeries, bank swindles and safe burglaries, which Ms. Rivett’s states was a solid factual basis for the Op’s fictional stories.

She goes on to quote her grandfather: “As much happens to one of my detectives in a page and a half as happened to me in six months when I was a real-life detective.”

The Continental Op first appeared in Black Mask magazine in October of 1923 in a story called “Arson Plus.”

“Jim Tarr picked up the cigar I rolled across his desk, looked at the band, bit off an end, and reached for a match,” Mr. Hammett’s “Arson Plus” begins. ‘Fifteen cents straight,’ he said. ‘You must want me to break a couple of laws for you this time.’

“I had been doing business with this fat sheriff of Sacramento County for four or five years — ever since I came to the Continental Detective Agency’s San Francisco office — and I had never known him to miss an opening for a sour crack; but it didn’t mean anything. ‘Wrong both times,’ I told him. ‘I get two of them for a quarter; and I’m here to do you a favor instead of asking for one. The company that insured Thornburgh’s house thinks somebody touched it off.’”

Despite Dashiell Hammett’s foolish sympathy for the American Communist Party and other character flaws, he was a patriot who served in the U.S. Army in both world wars. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

“Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare and tropical fish,” wrote Raymond Chandler, another late, great crime writer. “He put these people down on paper as they were, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.”

The Op stories are full of gritty and gruesome characters, plenty of action, snappy dialogue with period slang and fine writing. In “The Big Book of the Continental Op,” new readers can discover a unique voice and Dashiell Hammett aficionados, like myself, can rejoice in rereading all of his Op stories in one fine volume.

• Paul Davis is a writer who covers crime, espionage and terrorism.

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