Book Review: The Big Book of the Continental Op

The Big Book of the Continental Opby Dashiell Hammettedited by Richard Layman & Julie M. RivettVintage Crime/Black Lizard Original, 2017Five years ago the legendary editor Otto Penzler and the great Black Lizard books line of Vintage Crime teamed up to produce an enormous thousand-page anthology of pulp fiction from the pages of the seminal Black Mask magazine, the cheap and lurid venue that launched the careers of dozens of writers over the course of its 60-year lifetime. One of those writers was Dashiell Hammett, and one of the most popular characters whose adventures he serialized in those pages was his schlubby, undemonstrative, yet valiant investigator, the Continental Op, who debuted in 1923 and went on to appear in dozens of stories and two serialized novels. Those stories and novels – the full extent of Hammett's writings on this character – are now for the first time collected all in one place, a nice big volume from Black Lizard called The Big Book of the Continental Op. And as Julie Rivett writes in her Introduction, the character's pivotal place in the hard-boiled literature warrants such a volume:

The body of work collected in this volume made Sam Spade possible and has helped to pave the way for modern literary crime fiction, creating a bridge between the raw brawls-and-bullets thrillers common to post-World War I pulp magazines and the realistic, morally complex crime literature so enormously popular among twenty-first-century readers. The Op has been and remains one of American literature's most influential fictional creations.

Hammett's legion of readers will recognize the beginnings of the clean, black-and-white ethical world in which so many of Hammett's later characters would live and work, a world in which heroes are bound by an unspoken code familiar in its basic outlines to anyone who's read Raymond Chandler's great essay “The Simple Art of Murder.” It's a code, we're told here, in which “detectives maintain anonymity and resist publicity, sequestering themselves within a veil of secrecy.”This secrecy certainly applies to the Op, whose innermost motivations we seldom even glimpse in these stories (and whose name we never learn). Instead, what we get almost immediately is the signature Hammett easy way around a plot, taking the industry-standard gumshoe outlines of the day and investing them with a clever crackle that stands out even from the best unsung innovators of pulp era. And increasingly as the stories go on, there crop up the Hammett-specialty lean and slangy action moments with their throwaway capping lines, as in 1924's “One Hour”:

Then we fought some more.But you can't throw a brass cuspidor through a glass door into California Street between Montgomery and Kearny without attracting attention – it's too near the heart of daytime San Francisco. So presently – when I was on the floor again with six or eight hundred pounds of flesh hammering my face into the boards – we were pulled apart, and I was dug out of the bottom of the pile by a squad of policemen.Big sandy-haired Coffee was one of them, but it took a lot of arguing to convince him that I was the Continental operative who had talked to him a little while before.“Man! Man!” he said, when I finally convinced him. “Them lads sure – God! Have worked you over! You got a face on you like a wet geranium!”

Black Lizard has done a genuine service to Hammett fans and pulp readers alike by assembling all of the Continental Op in one big stylishly noir volume. Hammett customarily disparaged his Op stories in later years, seeming to look back on them as strained journeyman stuff. But the experience of reading through The Big Book of the Continental Op belies his hindsight; there's an enormous amount of raw energy in these stories, with none of the great-man-who's-seen-it-all complacency that crept into the author's later and more famous work. The Op is pure pulp enjoyment, here presented in one enormous dose for the devoted.