By Scott A. Cupp
This is the 202nd in my series of Forgotten Books.
Like John D. MacDonald in last week’s Forgotten Book, it would be hard to imagine a world where Dashiell Hammett is a “forgotten writer.” The five novels ranging from Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, The Glass Key, The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man have been printed and reprinted over and over. In fact, The Maltese Falcon is one of the greatest novels in the English language. Together with Raymond Chandler and Carroll John Daly, Hammett led the charge to take murder and mayhem out of the English drawing room and pit it back on the mean streets.
I have read each of those books, multiple times, over the past 50 years, and I watch the films whenever they are on. I cannot count the number of times of time I have heard Sam Spade say “the stuff dreams are made of.”
But it is easy to forget that those novels did not spring fully realized from the head of Hammett. He had an apprenticeship period, generally in the Black Mask magazine. And he told many of these tales through the eyes of a short, fat unnamed detective who worked for the Continental Detective Agency in San Francisco. There are a number of Hammett short story collections that have been published throughout the years, some with great titles like Dead Yellow Women, The Creeping Siamese and The Big Knockover. But, until this volume, there has never been a complete accounting of the Continental Op stories.
The three title stories listed in the previous paragraph are all among the best of the stories contained in The Continental Op: The Complete Case Files, this week’s book. But, again, these stories did not just leap from Hammett’s fingertips. Editors Laymon and Rivette group the stories into three groups – The Early Years (1923-1924) with 10 stories beginning with “Arson Plus”; The Middle Years (1924-1926) with 11 stories, beginning with “The House in Turk Street” (one of my favorites) through “The Gutting of Couffignal” (another amazing story); and The Later Years (1927-1930) with 8 stories beginning with “The Creeping Siamese” and including the near novel The Big Knockover,” its sequel “$106,000 Blood Money” and “Death and Company.” That period also includes one unfinished story, “Three Dimes.” All but two of the published stories appeared in Black Mask.
The Early Years stories are all okay. None of them particularly leapt out to me as an Oh-My-God! moment. But with the advent of Hammett’s middle period and “The House in Turk Street” and its sequel “The Girl With the Silver Eyes,” there was a difference in the writing, a leanness that moved the stories along, even though they were longer pieces. In this period we get the stories previously noted as well as “The Whosis Kid,” “Who Killed Bob Teal” and “Dead Yellow Women.” If he had stopped writing at this point, he would still be revered today.
The later years bring it all home, though. “The Big Knockover” and “$106,000 Blood Money” were issued together as a short novel by Dell Paperbacks and as a hardcover from World Publishing. They are a little short to be considered a complete novel, but they are very, very good. During this period, I also liked “The Creeping Siamese” and “Fly Paper.” There were one or two contrived pieces, especially “The King Business” (one of the two non-Black Mask stories), which takes the Op away from San Francisco and into Europe with a young man being maneuvered into funding a political revolution.
Read in one or two sittings, these stories will get old. Spread over a week or month, however, they retain their wonderful flavor. If, like me, you have not read all of these or only know Hammett through his novels, this is where you want to be. If you are interested in the history of the mystery field in the 20th Century, this is where you need to be. The introductory essays before each section are worth the price of admission alone. If character names like The Whosis Kid, Paddy the Mex, Bluepoint Vance, Wop Healy, Tom-Tom Carey, and the Did-and-Dat Kid strike your fancy, this is the book for you. (I should mention that Hammett was definitely a product of his time, and there are some ethnic slurs that were common in the period and which reflect the character of the Operative. Just a word to not be surprised when you run into those words. There are not a lot of them, but they could be jarring to some readers.)
Looking again this evening, this particular version does not appear to be available on Amazon. Which is a crying shame. There are multiple volumes which reprint all the stories, but it talks some work and money. I got this in September 2016 for $14.99, the most I ever have paid for an e-book. And it was worth every penny.
Series organizer Patti Abbott hosts more Friday Forgotten Book reviews at her own blog, and posts a complete list of participating blogs.