Showing posts with label Dashiell Hammett. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dashiell Hammett. Show all posts

Friday, February 24, 2023

The Continental Op (with illustrations by John K. Snyder III)

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.

“Arson Plus”

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.

“Crooked Souls”

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.

“Slippery Fingers”

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.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

The Maltese Falcon

Samuel Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) was a military veteran, detective, screenwriter, author, and president of the Civil Rights Congress. He began writing short stories for the pulps in the early 1920s, contributing to publications like 10 Story Book, Black Mask, Saucy Stories, and True Detective Mysteries. Perhaps one of his most popular creations is the Continental Op, a hardboiled detective that appeared in over 35 stories. However, the hero pales in comparison to the massive appeal of Sam Spade. The San Francisco detective first appeared in The Maltese Falcon, a five-part serial that ran from September, 1929 through January, 1930 in Black Mask. The character would later appear in four more short stories and became a Hollywood icon when Humphrey Bogart portrayed Spade in The Maltese Falcon, a 1941 film adaptation. 

Sam Spade shares an office with his partner Miles Archer. The two receive a visitor calling herself Miss Wonderley. This potential new client wants the duo to follow a man named Floyd, who she speculates has convinced her sister to run off with him. When she produces cash, the two agree to the case and Archer is the first to do the checking up. Unfortunately, Spade is notified that same night that Archer has been shot to death. Spade later learns that this Floyd fellow has been killed as well. 

Anyone that reads my reviews knows that one of my biggest pet peeves in literature is starting a novel with a lot of “what the Hell is going on” type of stuff. The Maltese Falcon is one of those books. The first chapters, or arguably the entire first half, purposefully makes very little sense. Wonderley is really a woman named Brigid O' Shaughnessy, who was hired by a man named Gutman in Constantinople to locate a precious statue of a falcon said to have been passed down through the years from the 16th century. This Brigid woman hired another guy named Cairo to help her get the falcon, but then fled to San Francisco with Floyd hoping to make an even more lucrative sell to a higher bidder than Gutman. Forget all of the sister stuff. 

Cairo is now chasing Brigid, while she's being chased by Gutman and the police think Spade is in on the kill of Archer and maybe Floyd because he was sleeping with Archer's wife Iva. It's a tangled plot with a lot of characters and moving parts. Sadly, nothing really ever happens beyond an excessive amount of dialogue, speculation, and finger wagging. At one point, every major character enters the room and they get down to the discussion of who killed who and motives and all of the typical stuff you find in the armchair sleuth business. 

Sure, Spade is a cool character, doesn't say much, and breaks the mold of the Sherlock Golden Age Detective by unconventional means. He doesn't work well with the law, obviously has some anti-hero characteristics (he's sleeping with his partner's wife for God's sake), and becomes an evasive fall guy chasing red herrings galore. He should be easy to cheer, considering he's the least baddest of the bad guys. But, all of these characteristics still left a dull edge. Spade isn't supposed to be a likable guy, but he should damn well be an entertaining one. 

Hammett's storytelling style didn't resonate with me. There isn’t much insight into what any of these characters are thinking. Instead, it reads like a play with the entire novel presented through the dialogue. It is void of any emotional depth.

The idea that this book is cherished by the mystery community seems odd to me. Is it really a mystery novel that needs an adventure, or an adventure novel trapped in the confines of a whodunit? I wanted Sam Spade to grab a suitcase and head to Europe or Asia chasing this Holy Grail-like relic of Spanish lore. The whole idea of chasing the treasure is just begging for a wild globe-trot. But, these things never happen and the mystery doesn't escape a handful of rooms.

Granted, I'm probably saturated in modern detectives or more hard-hitting tough guys from the mid to late 20th century, so finding Sam Spade late in the game didn't do me (or him) any favors. It's like watching Top Gun: Maverick (2022) and then attempting to appreciate The Dawn Patrol (1938). It is probably more my fault than Hammett's, but I still can't justify the hype of Sam Spade or The Maltese Falcon. Overall, this was a snooze fest for me. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, October 17, 2022

The Creeping Siamese

Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) was a pulp fiction pioneer who authored enduring titles, including The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon. For my money, his best recurring character was The Continental Op, an unnamed hardboiled PI on assignment from San Francisco's Continental Detective Agency. “The Creeping Siamese” was a story that originally appeared in the March 1926 issue of Black Mask that was later reissued as the anchor of a Dell Mapback paperback story compilation.

A tall guy walks into the Continental offices and immediately collapses dead onto the floor. An examination of the stranger reveals he was killed by a stab wound to the chest with the gory wound hastily dressed by a piece of silk that appears to be a sarong. The corpse's pocket contains a hotel key, and The Op’s boss dispatches him to the hotel to gather some intel. After all, it’s bad for business for unsolved murders to be happening in the lobby of a prestigious detective agency.

At the hotel, The Op learns the dead guest’s name but has no idea who would want to stab the poor bastard. The only relevant clue is the sarong, so The Op begins to scour the area for “Hindus” and “Brown Men.” Nearly 100 years later, the vernacular comes off as more quaint than offensive, but consider yourself warned if that kind of thing ruffles your feathers. The initial search for an “Asiatic” stabber produces no solid leads, but a lucky break introduces our hero to a clue indicating that the murder was conducted by a Siamese (we now call them Thai) guy.

The ensuing puzzle surrounds a mysterious package about the size of a bread loaf containing unknown contents worthy of murder – at least to the stabby Saimese. The solution, however, comes pretty quickly to The Op and seemingly out of nowhere. The clue that leads him to the conclusion just wasn’t credible to a reader with critical thinking skills. The whole endeavor felt rushed as if Hammett hit his contractual word count and needed to rush to the gym or something.

“The Creeping Siamese” is not a waste of your time, but it's an awful introduction to this vivid and normally hardboiled character. There was nothing particularly edgy or violent about the events, and it could just have easily been an Agatha Christie Miss Marple mystery story. The Op is normally a resourceful badass, but in this one, he was more Sherlockian. If you’re already a fan, you might as well check this one out. If you’re looking to read this awesome character at his best, check out “The House in Turk Street” and be prepared to have your socks knocked off. Get the books HERE.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Blood Money

Dashiell Hammett’s nameless detective - an operative for San Francisco’s Continental Detective Agency - starred in 36 short works and two novels beginning in 1923. One of his most iconic stories was “The Big Knockover,” a novella which originally appeared in the February 1927 issue of “Black Mask.” The tale continues in a second novella called “$106,000 Blood Money” from May 1927’s “Black Mask.” Over the years, publishers have packaged the two novellas together as one short novel titled “Blood Money.”

As the paperback opens, the Continental Op finds himself in a bar filled with con-artists and stick-up men blowing off steam with booze and live music. Leaving the tavern, the Op gets a tip from a newsie snitch that there are plans afoot to rob Seaman’s National Bank, a standing client of the Continental Detective Agency. Could the tip have anything to do with the giant crook convention at the bar?

You know it does and I know it does. What the informant fails to tell the Op was that the plan entails robbing not one, but two, large San Francisco banks at the same time with a standing army of crooks working together to make the jobs a bonanza of theft with millions in bank losses. During the robbery itself, the police were taken off guard, and the job went off without a hitch leaving behind a bloodbath or carnage and bank shareholders demanding private justice from the Continental investigators.

The Continental Op dives headfirst into the underworld to find out who the top man was planning this audacious crime. It’s a violent and exciting ride in a high body-count story that has aged extremely well over the past 93 years. It’s edgy, violent and gritty stuff but never cartoonish like much of the era’s pulp hero fiction. Hammett was clearly writing works that set the stage for Mickey Spillane in the 1950 and many other purveyors of violent action fiction beyond that.

Many compilations have reprinted “The Big Knockover” and “$106,000 Blood Money” back-to-back, but collectors may want to seek out a vintage paperback of “Blood Money.” Either way, you’re in for a real treat as this is top-notch hardboiled violence underscoring why Hammett was the grandfather of the genre. 

Buy a copy HERE

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The House in Turk Street

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.