I envy first time readers of Dashiell Hammett’s work who discover The Adventures of the Continental Op through Crime Stories & Other Writings. Editor Steven Marcus presents twenty four of Hammett’s hard-edged short stories of crime and violence. Twenty of them feature a nameless operative of the San Francisco branch of the Continental Detective Agency. The stories are based on the experience of Hammett as an operative of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, which he joined in 1915, in Baltimore, Maryland; and ended his employment in 1921, in San Francisco. His first crime story “The Road Home,” would appear in the December 1922 issue of The Black Mask, a detective pulp.

Prior to Crime Stories & Other Writings, The Big Knockover, and Marcus’ 1974 collection from Random House, The Continental Op, were the only collections available to fans of the Op’s short fiction. The two books had sixteen of the Op’s adventures, but Marcus has included all of the stories from his earlier collection and left out only “Corkscrew” from The Big Knockover. As a Hammett fan and collector of Op stories for 20 years, only “Slippery Fingers” was new to me, but I purchased the book because I had to have that one Op story. And the other point was that all stories but one are taken from their pulp magazine appearances. Editor Steven Marcus has edited nothing… Good man!

The stories are reprinted in the order of their Black Mask appearances, which allows the reader to watch as Hammett’s skill as a writer develops from one story to the next. He reveals to us the talents necessary for the detective to master in order to become a hardened professional manhunter. We watch the Op as he listens, observes, and begins to manipulate events in order to get to the truth he’s been hired to uncover.

A special feature of this volume is also the reprinting of “From the Memoirs of a Private Detective,” from The Smart Set (March 1923). In this short feature, Hammett reveals some of the amusing incidents in his career as a manhunter, and gives a glimpse of the content of what makes his fiction unique.

Not counting the eight linked novelettes which make up his first two novels, Red Harvest and The Dain Curse, Hammett wrote 28 stories of the Op. (Although E.R. Hagemann in his A Comprehensive Index to Black Mask: 1920–1951, does not think “It” is one). The following list of eight Op stories, not in Crime Stories & Other Writings, will be in chronological order. Black Mask publication date will be followed by the name of the book publication of the story.

  1. “It,” Black Mask (November 1923); Woman in the Dark (as “The Black Hat that Wasn’t There”), Lawrence Spivak, 1952
  2. “Bodies Piled Up,” Black Mask (December 1, 1923); Dead Yellow Women, Nightmare Town, 1999
  3. “One Hour,” Black Mask (March 1, 1924); The Return of the Continental Op, Nightmare Town, 1999
  4. “Who Killed Bob Teal?,” True Detective (November 1924); Dead Yellow Women, Nightmare Town, 1999
  5. “Mike, Alec, or Rufus,” Black Mask (January 1925); Creeping Siamese (as “Tom, Dick, or Harry”), Nightmare Town, 1999
  6. “Corkscrew,” Black Mask (September 1925); Nightmare Town, 1948; The Big Knockover, 1966
  7. “Death and Company,” Black Mask (November 1930); The Return of the Continental Op, Lawrence Spivak, 1945

Now, the sharp-eyed reader will notice two different publication dates on the Nightmare Town, 1948 and 1999. The 1948 date refers to a digest-sized magazine published by Lawrence Spivak as a “Bestseller Mystery”. It was also published as a Dell Mapback, #379 in 1950. In fact, all but one of the above listed titles had digest and paperback appearances.

Trying to collect all of Hammett’s short fiction, even in paperback, is no easy matter, since most of it is in hard-to-find and expensive to purchase Spivak digests or Dell Mapbacks. Adding to the difficulty is the same named books with slightly different contents. For instance, there are three paperbacks with the titles The Continental Op.

The best guide to this mass of paperback editions is Gary Lovisi’s Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler: A Checklist and Biography of their Paperback Appearances, Gryphon Press, 1994. Also valuable is “Collecting Mystery Fiction: Dashiell Hammett, Pgs. 156-163, The Armchair Detective, Vol. 17, #2, Spring 1984.

I began tracking Op stories in 1974 after I found an Ex-Libris copy of William F. Nolan’s first book on Hammett: Dashiell Hammett: A Casebook, 1969, McNally & Loftin, Pgs 132-145.

Two good articles on Hammett’s pulp fiction can be found in Robert Sampson’s volume 4 of Yesterday’s Faces: The Solvers Pgs 222-237; and Michael Chomko’s excellent fanzine“Purple Prose: issue #14 is devoted to detective fiction and “Hammett’s Ops”, by Michael Black is cover featured. A lot of interior art from Black Mask Hammett Stories is featured as well.

Crime Stories & Other Writings is well worth the price and should become a cornerstone volume in any reader’s library collection of Hammett short fiction.

Authored by John Desbin.

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