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Mystery Monday Review – The Continental Op

The Continental Op by Dashiell Hammett

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

Published by Dell in 1967, this pocket paperback bundled about half the pulp magazine long stories that appeared in a collection called The Big Knockover. I re-read these stories in my little free time since I didn’t feel up to reading anything else. The year-end festivities and the end of a semester are exhausting.

Hammett’s hero works in the San Francisco branch of the Continental Detective Agency in the 1920s. To make up for not having a name, he has developed an astute sense of how bad guys think. His core competence is using devious, often violent, methods to get the job done.

This King Business (1928). The Op finds himself in a Balkan country where the idealistic son of a rich guy is bankrolling a revolution for a band of crafty Slavs. Seems that the insurrectionists have promised to make the son a king if the revolution is successful. The rousing climax comes out of an action packed series of events which support the notion that the calculations of criminous types and political types aren’t all that different, a fairly common belief in the 1920s.

The Gatewood Caper (1923). A daughter is kidnapped and the desperate father wants her back mainly because it is a blow to his self-made man ego that somebody has the audacity to extort money out of him. “I’ve never been clubbed into doing anything in my life. And I’m too old to start now.” When the daughter doesn’t return even after the ransom is paid, our cunning Op smells something fishy. The story seethes with vindictive feeling and the setting of the Pacific Northwest – lumbering land – is persuasive.

Dead Yellow Women (1925). Très awkward title in our more enlightened era so we must make allowances for the era’s prejudices if that is our inclination. Set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the Op and a Chinese Tong Boss match wits. In places it feels like a parody of a Yellow Peril story, especially the elaborate polite language of the Tong Boss. The description of the maze-like interior of the criminal mastermind’s mansion is a tour de force. Also, a theme pops up: political idealism is exploited by venal crooks as in This King Business.

Corkscrew (1925). In this unexpected mixture of western and noir, the Op is a fish out of water when he is assigned to clean up remote dusty Corkscrew, Arizona. This ought to remind the shrewd reader of the Hammett’s novel Red Harvest, an exercise in violence and horror that rivals Tarantino. A gunslinger remarks, “A hombre might guess that you was playing the Circle H. A. R. against Bardell’s crew, encouraging each side to eat up the other, and save you the trouble.” The Op replies, “You could be either right or wrong. Do you think that’d be a dumb play?”

$106,000 Blood Money (1927). This presents the sequel to the story The Big Knockover. Like many aftermath stories, it is overall less satisfying than the original. The best part of the story is how the Op neatly solves a complicated problem. Again like Red Harvest, the plot is complicated with vivid characters and motivations. The Op slyly manipulates events to tidy conclusion.

The 1967 Dell paperback has an introduction by Lillian Hellman. It’s interesting but it tells more about her and Dash’s rocky relationship more than the stories. She makes a provocative point about the difficulty of living with somebody who is too stoically proud to complain when they are hurting.

 

 

 

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