Last month I wrote a little bit about Dashiell Hammett's work in anticipation of reading the stories that comprise The Continental Op. It's amazing how much depth there is to the work of Hammett. Not that I should be surprised. Mostly I'm impressed. I entered the often seedy and morally ambiguous world of Hammett's Op, the private investigator of the Continental Detective Agency, and came out slightly disoriented but with a taste for Hammett's prose style. Coming up for air, I wasn't entirely sure I wanted to move on to another book, wasn't sure I would be able to easily, so totally immersed did I feel.
Hammett's stories ooze atmosphere. They are rich in language and description including colloquialisms from the Twenties giving them an air of verisimilitude. They are filled with interesting and varied characters--gumshoes and yeggs alike. You know that famous first line--"the past is another country, they do things differently there"? That's certainly true of the Op's 1920s San Francisco. There's a toughness and grittiness to the city. I can perfectly picture in my mind the people that inhabit these stories, no matter how elegant and well-heeled some of them are, many of them are as dirty as the day is long. And cynical as the Op is and willing to do things in a manner not entirely respectable, you still get the feeling he's the good guy.
And the Op is at the heart of it all. He's never called by name. He's simply one of the operatives working in the San Francisco branch of the agency. Mid-thirties, he did a stint in the service and fought in the war. He's overweight and unimaginative (the latter his own word), but street smart and completely savvy to the ways of the people he's hired to catch and bring to justice. What's significant about Hammett's work (and the hardboiled style in general) is that the Op is not above playing dirty himself. Justice is an elastic term in his world and if you can't get the crooks one way, you probably can another and it might mean bending or breaking entirely a few rules along the way. While details run thin when it comes to knowing about the Op's life--past or present--you get a sense of his moral code, though it is jaded at best.
These stories are not your usual detective stories. There's a problem that needs fixing or a crime that needs to be investigated. Typically by the story's end you will know who did the crime and often why. You are reassured at the end and the world is set to rights, but not so much with Hammett. You may well know who committed the crime--more or less--but the world is not necessarily set to rights. You don't exactly get the feeling of satisfaction that things have worked out properly, wrongs have been righted and all's well that ends well. The solutions to the crimes are often veiled in ambiguity. The Op will give an account of what really happened, or his own version of it anyway, his "reality".
It's interesting to think about when the stories were written and published, which was during the era of Prohibition. Corruption at this time was rife and organized crime rampant. This was the reality in America at the time. These stories seem such a natural outgrowth of the reality Hammett, who had himself been a Pinkerton detective, was exposed to and lived. There are all sorts of layers to the stories, but they can certainly simply be enjoyed as the the good stories they are.
Each story is certainly worthy of being written about in depth, but here's a little teaser of tone and subject matter as there are too many to tackle at once.
In "The Tenth Clew" the Op's client turns up dead (killed by a typewriter!) before he even has a chance to know why he's been hired. It's a case of a widower falling for a much younger woman. Did she kill him for his money? There are nine seemingly solid clues, but the tenth is the one questioning all the rest that will shed truth on the matter.
"The Golden Horseshoe" is the name of a bar in a Mexican border town where a husband has absconded and whose wife wants him found. When she turns up dead he has a solid alibi which the Op is determined to crack.
I think "The House in Turk Street" is one of my favorite stories of the group. The Op is knocking on doors hunting for a witness to a crime when he stumbles on something much much bigger. It's a story of double crosses and a frame-up, and by story's end you wonder just what it was again the Op was initially searching for. Very cleverly plotted.
In "The Girl with Silver Eyes" the Op is hired to find the fiancée of a man who has disappeared after traveling east. Another twisty story of double crosses which ends in a violent confrontation in a seedy roadhouse. The characters may often be upper class but the locales tend to be the sorts of place you wouldn't want to find yourself.
"The Whosis Kid" begins his criminal days in Boston in 1917 where the Op had been working for the detective agency before being transferred out west. A fellow operative had promised to "clamp him" someday, but was killed before he had the chance. But the Whosis Kid resurfaces years later in San Francisco, stolen gems in hand, where he crosses paths with the Op. There's a rather vixen-ish character in this story who clings to the Op, who refuses to bend to her charms. Still, the man is human and has moments of uncertainty in other stories.
In "The Main Death" the Op must track down a missing $20,000, stolen from a murdered man. The solution will involve a monogrammed ladies handkerchief with a particular scent. Red herring or real clue? Sometimes justice is served but in a shady way. Is it better to follow the letter or the law or the spirit of it--the Op must decide.
"The Farewell Murder" takes place up along the California coast where the Op is hired to guard a man who's certain his enemies are out to kill him. He still gets murdered, but the obvious suspects can prove they were nowhere near the victim at the time of his death. Quite cleverly constructed, and de-constructed by the Op.
The Continental Op only ever shows up in short stories from what I understand, or in a couple of cases in longer linked stories/novellas. Hammett sold most of the stories to the pulp magazine Black Mask, though I'm not sure how many there were in total. Quite a few I'm guessing. It would be fun to read through them all, and I think the Library of America has a fairly comprehensive collection of them which I will be watching for. There are only a handful of novels and I hope to read as much as I can before going to San Francisco in the fall. Fingers crossed I can do a walking tour, too, of Dashiell Hammett's San Francisco. Next up is Hammett's novella, Woman in the Dark. Eventually I will be moving on to Raymond Chandler (and then....well, the list of hardboiled detectives and their authors is a long one) and a few others after him.
I'm still trying to get my hands on the other short stories from the CWA list, but I am having a hard time acquiring Outsiders: Italian Stories, which contains two of the stories. So, next week I may be back to my Persephone Collection!
Otherwise my crime and mystery reading continues apace. This week I hope to finish reading Laurie King and Janet Neel.