Friday, September 2, 2011

Dashiell Hammett - The Continental Op

Then I turned on all the lights in the room, lighted a cigarette (we all like to pose a little now and then), and sat down on the bed to await my capture. (p. 111)

Though Sam Spade, famous for his starring role in the Maltese Falcon, might have a higher profile, it's the Continental Op that narrated the lion's share of Dashiell Hammett's fiction, including Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, and the bulk of the man's short fiction. Containing seven stories written between 1924 and 1930, the The Continental Op collection from Black Lizard is filled with tales that perfectly show one of the genre's best on his home turf.

Mystery – the hodgepodge bookstore section for mysteries, crime, and thrillers, that is – is at its heart a rational genre. To boil the genre down to a single glib sentence, the genre is the solving of puzzles. At the opening of the story, the detective, and the reader, is confronted with a situation that makes no sense. Then, like the Scooby gang demasking another supernatural ghost to find a middle aged man, the detective makes sense of the clues and replaces impossibility with a logical procession of events. Any in genre story by Poe, Doyle, or any of their authorial descendants, begins with a series of incomprehensible clues and ends with motive, miscreant, and method all neatly tied up and – if the author's good at what they do – no disappointing coincidences or absurdities remaining.

Dashiell Hammett's stories do not function like that at all, though the Continental Op does indeed go through his own process of investigation. Hammett's aim is not the puzzle but rather the implications of the puzzle, and his stories are not riddles that can be satisfactorily deduced by even the most skilled reader-sleuth hybrid. Hammett's mysteries are mysteries of people and society, not of circumstance, and the Op learns far more by sheer force of will and his own dogged determination than he does from any brilliant analysis of clues.

This is perhaps best exemplified by the collection's first story, The Tenth Clew (available for free here). The Op and the local police find themselves confronted with a murder and a surfeit of clues – or, as I suppose I must, clews. Instead of following the trail to the bloody end, however, the Op disregards all of them and focuses on the man behind them, hunting the personality rather than the evidence. For Hammett, the deduction is, at best, a sideshow, and not only is the reader almost never given all the pieces before the reveal, they're also almost never even shown the Op's process of discovery.

But those are but surface differences. No, the true difference between the genre of mysteries and the writings of Dashiell Hammett is what Steven Marcus discusses in his fantastic introduction. As I said about, mystery is inherently a rational genre. But Hammett is inherently not a rational writer. Like all detectives, the Op reveals the lies of common sense and criminals for what they are, but the truth he uncovers is just as illogical as his foes' deception. Hammett's stories are all but made out of defied expectations, and his revelations are filled with people who are not who they claim to be, crimes committed for reasons incomprehensible, random bursts of violence, and coincidences and hapless fate so twisted as to be delicious. As Marcus says:

Yet what happens in Hammett is that what is revealed as "reality" is a still further fiction-making activity – in the first place in the Op's, and behind that yet another, the consciousness present in many of the Op stories and all the novels that Dashiell Hammett, the writer, is continually doing the same thing as the Op and all the other characters in the fiction he is creating. That is to say, he is making a fiction (in writing) in the real world; and this fiction, like the real world itself, is coherent but not necessarily rational. What one both begins and ends with, then, is a story, a narrative, a coherent yet questionable account of the world. (p. XXI)

For Hammett, the world as we see it is a very flimsy thing, a construction easily sidestepped by both the intending and the oblivious. Identity, for him, is a passing thing, a garb easily donned and discarded. As one captured villain says of their slipping through the cracks: Then I took an apartment on Ashubry Avenue under [an assumed name], and I was an altogether different person. (p. 169, The Girl with the Silver Eyes) (name removed for the sake of spoilers)

Perhaps the Continental Op is a bulwark of justice in such an immoral world, but the Op himself doesn't seem so much moral as amoral, a nameless everyman in appearance and intellect notable only for his force of will. The Continental Op does not share the ambiguity that adorns Sam Spade throughout the Maltese Falcon, but he is also as far as cry from Chandler's Philip Marlowe as he is from Sherlock Holmes. Like in Red Harvest, the Op doesn't care about methods so long as he gets the job done, and his idea of the job is often a far cry from that of his employer's.

In The Golden Horseshoe, we see that the Op's goals are not that of the law, but rather of justice. Providing he can see justice done, the Op doesn't care what story he has to feed the law. In The Main Death, the Op goes one step further. In case too convoluted to ever be won at trial, he takes the law into his own hands, regains the victim's property with force, and buries the facts under a happy outcome. In The Farewell Murders, he reveals that his idea of justice doesn't even extend to seeing the good prosper – he just needs to see the wicked suffer. The Op responds to the continued misfortune and even tragedy of his employer without even a sympathetic word, and he weathers years and false ends all so that, at the end, he can see the guilty hanged.

The Op's justice is a harsh one, and, to him, the guilty deserve no rights at all. When he tells the story of a former cop, Duran, it's clear where his sympathies lie: He used to be captain of detectives in one of the larger Middle Western cities. Once he tried too hard to get a confession out of a safe-ripper, and killed him. The newspapers didn't like Duran. They used that accident to howl him out of his job. (p. 190) I don't believe it's a coincidence that five of the seven stories ends with the following emotionless sentiment: They hanged him. (p. 319)

We've established by now that the thrill of a Hammett story is not the solving of the mystery, but we haven't yet looked into where precisely the thrill is to be found. The answer comes from the prose and the hardboiled, unsentimental, and unflinching interaction of the Op and the world around him. Hammett's writing is clear, terse, and able to both convey volumes of style while simultaneously revealing almost no emotion at all. In the midst of this, the Op often further reinforces his detachment with instances of wit so dry and caustic they're liable to start forest fires: The face she made at me was probably meant for a smile. Whatever it was, it beat me. I was afraid she'd do it again, so I surrendered. (p. 57)

Among other things, Hammett has a gift for pegging characters in only a few lines and in picking out the one detail that makes them memorable. Alas, while he refrains from over indulging in pointless back stories, he loves to drown the telling and significant details he's created in oceans of white noise and minutia: Age about 30; height about five feet ten; slender, weight about 140; medium complexion; brown hair, suit, and shoes and a gray overcoat. (p. 252) I suppose that, if the infamous police report style of description is to ever find a home it would be here, in a novel about a private detective, but that doesn’t change the fact that such a storm of details leaves the reader with far less, not far more, of a picture than they would otherwise have had. And lest you think that example unique, here's another from the same page: [he was] about five eight inches tall, would weight about a hundred and seventy pounds, had brown hair and eyes, a dark complexion, a flat, broad face with his cheekbones, and wore a blue suit, gray hat, tan overcoat, black shoes, and a pear-shaped pearl tie-pin. (p. 252)

The newest of these stories is eight decades old, and it's true that their levels of gore and profanity feel tame to a modern audience. Their core, however, feels anything but. Hammett's grasp of atmosphere and pace is excellent here, and his ability to build tension is unmatched. After a classic Hammett moment of false perceptions, The House on Turk Street becomes a deadly game of cat and mouse in an unlit house. Other stories, too, are prone to sudden escalations that lead to scenes of violence that are either so brief as to be downright blunt as well as merciless or long, drawn out passages of waiting for the flash of gunfire to give away the enemy. Both styles of action work incredibly well, and each is stronger for the downbeat forced calm that surrounds it.

The Continental Op is a collection of stories that will make your pulse pound. It's also a collection of stories that contain surprising amounts of depth and even revelation. This is an essential read for anyone interested in Dashiell Hammett, noir, mystery in general, or even just good fiction.


  1. I bought the Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps last year but never summoned the willpower to tackle it (big book). Your review has piqued my interest further.

  2. I bought the Big Book of Pulps at some point as well and have also been a tad intimidated by its monolithic size. Shall have to dive into that at some point...