There have been countless reprints of stories starring Dashiell Hammett’s iconic and groundbreaking hardboiled private detective, The Continental Op. However, the recent collection of the first five-stories in the series from Clover Press is something special due to the addition of illustrations from John K. Snyder III that supplement Hammett’s prose.
Snyder is an accomplished comic book artist who recently resurrected and reimagined Lawrence Block’s Eight Million Ways to Die as a graphic novel to critical and fan acclaim. Snyder’s beautiful, full-page illustrations make Hammett’s prose come alive in this slim collection. To be clear, this Continental Op compilation is not a graphic novel or comic book, but rather a collection of five stories with Snyder illustrations sprinkled throughout.
The five stories were originally published in Black Mask Magazine throughout 1923, but they remain fresh and violent stories of mystery and suspense a century later. The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon are the works that come to mind when the public hears Hammett’s name. But for my money, the nameless detective from the San Francisco office of the Continental Detective Agency was his best hero and starred in his strongest works.
The first Continental Op story was originally written under the pseudonym of Peter Collinson, and it involves the investigation of a rural fire that flattened a house down to ash. The homeowner was consumed in the blaze while his servants evacuated safely.
It’s a pretty straightforward mystery story with the Op and his partner interviewing suspects who may or may not know anything about the blaze that killed the homeowner until a solution becomes apparent. As the first Continental Op story, it’s clear that Hammett was still trying to find the character’s voice. It’s more of an interesting historical artifact than essential hardboiled reading.
The adult daughter of a lumber company CEO has been kidnapped and the Continental Detective Agency is hired to find the girl and supplement the efforts of the police. A $50,000 ransom demand provides the Op a chance to lure the bad guys from the shadows, but the client is too bullheaded to pay.
Now, this is a story! We have action and violence with a twist. Don’t sleep on this one. Hammett finds his Continental Op footing here.
A wealthy man is stabbed in the throat, and his son wants the Continental Detective Agency to handle the case as the police have failed thus far. The Op figures that the motive was financial and puts some forensic accounting types on the task of going through the dead man’s books.
Another straightforward mystery yarn with a clever solution involving a mysterious set of fingerprints. This one is completely worth reading, despite the lack of gunplay action.
Sometimes you’ll see this story collected under the title of “The Black Hat That Wasn’t There.” The case involves $100,000 in Liberty Bonds missing from a locked safe of the Golden Gate Trust Company. Meanwhile, there’s a partner in the trust company with access to the bonds who has disappeared. Should be easy: find the partner, find the bonds, right?
The Op follows leads that winds him up in an awesome cat and mouse game within a dark room - two men, one gun. All of this leads to a satisfying and tidy conclusion. Another winner for Hammett.
“Bodies Piled Up”
After a hotel detective is fired for drunkenness, the Continental Op is assigned to fill in for the hotel dick for three days as a temp. On the last day of the assignment, the Op responds to a room housing three murdered hotel guests. All three men had wallets full of cash, so what could the motive be?
The Op and his men run down logical leads until a solution presents itself. Another decent mystery, but not much action - I was still coming off the high from the previous story.
Overall, this is a superb collection of stories to get you started in the world of the The Continental Op. If you’re also into hardboiled art by one of America’s finest illustrators, you’ll do well to choose this volume with the Snyder paintings over all the others. Recommended.