Thanks to Hollywood, Dashiell Hammett’s characters Sam Spade (“The Maltese Falcon”) and Nick & Nora Charles (“The Thin Man”) have gone down in history as iconic characters in the hardboiled mystery genre. For my money, I’ve always preferred Hammett’s nameless detective character, The Continental Op, who premiered in a short story from “Black Mask Magazine” in October 1923.
The Op is an “operative” (private eye) for the San Francisco office of the Continental Detective Agency, a nationwide outfit modeled after Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, where Hammett himself once worked as an operative in his younger days. In total, there were 28 Continental Op short stories and two novels, “Red Harvest” and “The Dain Curse” - all of which have been collected in the mammoth 2017 Black Lizard compilation, “The Big Book of the Continental Op,” edited by Richard Layman and Julie Rivett.
The anthology contains possibly the best short story I’ve ever read. It’s called “The House In Turk Street” and despite the fact that it originally appeared in April 1924, it is the kind of tension-filled bloodbath one might expect from a story starring Richard Stark’s Parker or Don Pendleton’s Mack Bolan. It’s a quick and exciting read that anyone could tackle in one sitting.
The setup is that The Op is hunting someone on an assignment and receives a tip that the person he’s seeking is hiding out on Turk Street in San Francisco. The Op comes up with a clever ruse to canvass the neighborhood door-to-door in a manner unlikely to tip off his prey. At one house, he is invited inside only to find that he has stumbled into the hideout of a heist crew fresh off a lucrative job. The Op is tied to a chair while the crew is planning their getaway, and this new addition of a hostage has thrown a wrinkle into their escape plans.
Without giving too much away, The Op is forced to silently bear witness to the crew’s departure planning as tensions run high and double crosses are set into motion. Meanwhile, he needs to figure out a way to leverage the situation to save his own bacon and come away the hero.
“The House In Turk Street” an amazingly tense and smart story that culminates in a fantastic conclusion that serves as a reminder why Hammett is regarded as the father of the genre nearly a century later. This story is a must-read for fans of men’s action-adventure fiction. Highly recommended.