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Archive for the ‘Continental Op’ Category

The Continental Ops stories by Dashiell Hammett, originally published in the various pulp mystery magazines of the 1920s through 1950s, are collected in four different books, with some overlap. There is The Continental Op, The Return of the Continental Op, Nightmare Town and this volume, The Big Knockover.

BigKnockover

Having read the first, I stumbled across the last at The Strand bookstore and decided it was worth a try since I liked the stories I’ve read. But I agree with Lillian Hellman’s comment in the introduction to the extent that some of the writing is good and some not so good. The good thing about the book is Hellman’s introduction from which we learn a bit about their relationship.

Regarding the 10 stories in the book, however, one in particular, Tulip, was indeed strange. Tulip, is actually an unfinished novella to which Hammett apparently wrote the last paragraph but left a big gap in the middle. A rambling conversation between two ‘friends’, it goes nowhere.  If it’s a Continental Op story (which I thought all the stories were going to be), I’m stymied, since detecting is not mentioned once.. It sounds more like a semi-autobiographical story aimed at the glossy, ‘literary’ magazines to which Hammett aspired, than a mystery.ContinentalOps

The namesake story, The Big Knockover is an imaginative, intricate story about a huge, coordinated bank heist. It contains Hammett’s typical, descriptive prose and a gaggle of gangster names reminiscent of the era. The story merits kudos. However, the followup story, $106,000 Blood Money, seems like an afterthought, with a strange ending that comes out of nowhere. It’s almost like nowadays when sequel upon sequel is issued to squeeze every last nickel out of a story.TheLostDetective

There’s Corkscrew, a ‘western’ in which the Continental Op is hired as sheriff of a small desert town. The story has horses and shoot ’em ups. The Scorched Face, which I read before and liked, is about two missing daughters, and This King Business is an odd story taking place in a foreign land. The remaining stories are relatively ‘normal’ Continental Op stories.

If you’re a Dashiell Hammett fan or a Continental Op fan, be sure to read both books, The Continental Op and The Big Knockover. If you have to choose one, or you want to whet your teeth and get a taste, The Continental Op is the better book.

Other good books on the subject of Hammett include The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett (which is up for an Edgar Award this year) and The Hunter and Other Stories, which tends more towards his literary writings. The first is definitely worth the read as it goes into Hammett’s days as a Pinkerton Detective and how it might have influenced his works, especially the Continental Op writings.

And of course, you can always fall back on Hammett’s classics, The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man series.

In conclusion, you can’t go wrong reading Hammett. It’s that simple.

 

 

 

 

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While there have numerous biographies of Dashiell Hammett, TheLostDetectivenone of them try to relate his writing to his Pinkerton detective days. Until now, that is. In The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett, Nathan Ward’s primary goal is to describe how being a Pinkerton shaped Hammett’s writing. While there is some general biographical data, the majority of the book is dedicated to Pinkerton.

DashiellHammettWard describes how Pinkerton had a standard, concise format for reports that detectives filed, which infiltrated into Hammett’s fictional writing. He also discusses both cases that Hammett might have been on as well as ones he would have heard about, which also impacted his writing.

It appears that all Pinkerton files relating to Hammett have disappeared, so much of Ward’s descriptions and conclusions are suppositions. But that doesn’t negatively impact the story he is telling.

Ward spends a good deal of time trying to determine who Hammett’s ContOpunnamed Continental Op detective  and his boss are based on. Hammett himself varies the story, at times saying the boss is James Wright (which is actually a name regularly used as an alias by operatives themselves) or a composite of several people. Ward speculates that the model for the Boss is James McParland, head of the agency’s Western division who apparently resembles the man Hammett describes as the Boss, “A tall, plump man in his seventies, this boss of mine, with a white-mustached, baby-pink, grandfatherly face, mild blue eyes behind rimless spectacles, and no more warmth in him than a hangman’s rope.”

TheThinManHe also speculates on the source of the Thin Man, portrayed by William Powell with Myrna Loy as his wife. He makes note that the dog was changed from a schnauzer in the book to a terrier in the film.

Ward provides many interesting morsels of Hammett’s life. He touches on Hammett’s relationship with his wife and with Lillian Hellman. He talks about Hammett’s contracting tuberculosis during World War II and how that affected him.

However, it is the snippets of his writing that make this great book even more worthwhile. Each chapter starts with a quote from a letter or book, such as this from Hammett in 1929, “I decided to become a writer. It was a good idea. Having had no experience whatever in writing, except writing letters and reports, I wasn’t handicapped by exaggerated notions of the difficulties ahead.” There are samples of Hammet’s writing, footnotes at the bottom of most pages, extensive notes and a selected bibliography, so Ward really did his work. At a mere 168 pages (before addendums), it’s a fast read. But you might want to slow down and savor it.

I’ll leave you with this 1934 quote from Hammett, for all you budding novelists, “The contemporary novelist’s job is to take pieces of life and arrange them on paper. And the more direct their passage from street to paper, the more lifelike they should be.” I think we can say Hammett mastered his craft.

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