Today’s Mystery Monday offering is a collection of Dashiell Hammett stories about The Continental Op, a nameless, hardboiled detective from another era in the annals of American crime fiction. Hammett (1894-1961), better known for his characters Sam Spade and The Thin Man (played in movies by Humphrey Bogart and William Powell, respectively), his stories about the dispassionate P.I. from the Continental Detective Agency, modelled on the Pinkerton Agency, have a life of their own and are a delightful, easy read for lovers of detective fiction.
Our Continental operative lives and works out of San Francisco but his investigations take him to other locations such as San Diego, Palm City, and Tijuana, Mexico. He sends messages to the office in code, has lots of tricks up his sleeve to identify suspects or to make them run, and is far from infallible, getting himself into lots of dicey situations. In these seven stories, our narrator finds himself alternately trailing the wrong man, stumbling over corpses, swimming against the tide in foggy traffic lanes, bungling into the middle of a gang of thieves without knowing what is going on, and finding a con that got away in one story coming back to haunt him in another. Every story is an adventure, and each has at least one surprising twist before it ends, putting our hero back on the street mostly all in one piece.
I love the narrator’s style. In The Whosis Kid, he describes one of the survivors of an earlier fight as he barges through the open doorway. “One of the Frenchman’s eyes was bruised and closed — a beautiful shiner. His clothes were rumpled and dirty. He wore them jauntily in spite of that, and he still had his walking stick, crooked under the arm that didn’t hold his gun.”
I also like that, much of the time, the Op doesn’t know what’s going on but is following a hunch that may or may not pan out. Because he’s the narrator, his thoughts come out in a stream of consciousness — describing everything he’s thinking and everything that happens. “I had known this Porky Grout for three years, and had been using him for nearly that long, and I didn’t know a single thing that could be said in his favor. He was a coward. He was a liar. He was a thief, and a hop-head. . . His cowardice was — for my purpose — his greatest asset.” (The Girl with the Silver Eyes) That’s another thing the Op got wrong.
These are terrific stories — unusual and complex plots, with lots of 30’s gangster talk that seems pretty campy now, and a hero who isn’t like a Hollywood star but rather clumsy, overweight, and often on the wrong track. Lots of fun for fans of Hammett’s better-known stories/movies who aren’t necessarily familiar with The Continental Op. * * * * *
It’s very easy to participate in my Mystery Monday meme. Just post a review of your latest mystery read on your own site, and then a comment on my post with a link to yours. Drag or copy my meme logo and add it and these few rules to your post. Simplicity itself! I look forward to learning about more great mysteries to add to my ever-growing list of To Be Read.