Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Continental Op (Dashiell Hammett, 1923 - 1930)

Seven short stories collection about nameless detective working for The Continental Op agency by one of the crime greatest.

Masterpieces, all of them. Superb, stunning stuff and lesson in writing. For me, this is a foundation of a crime genre and urban literature altogether. Tough guys, asphalt jungle, no messing around, no rules, no sentimentality...

In all these years it hasn't aged one bit. Second collection titled "The Big Knockover" is already waiting on my shelf.

The Tenth Clew
Murder has been committed and our favorite nameless investigator together with his cop friend O’Gar (a bullet-headed detective-sergeant who dresses like a village constable in movie) is left with a few suspects and with a bunch of clues. Nine of them to be exact and they are all as typical/predictable/standard as possible. And when you start to wonder how the hell Hammett will be able to solve this complicated mess within 40 pages story, everything unravels pretty quickly. Because our lucid PI finds these clues far too obvious and therefore the 10th clue (clew?) is basically that the rest of them were planted so he should look for the culprit in exactly the opposite way they are pointing to. Pretty smart, wouldn’t you say? 

The Golden Horseshoe
Like The Tenth Clew this one also opens with a line of a dialogue, which is a nice touch and I like it. In this particular case nameless is instructed by some lawyer to find a missing person. This guy is not a criminal so case seems to be a little boring and lawyer even apologizes for it. But we know better of course because during the briefing murder and drugs are mentioned. Right after this mandatory introduction, story and its narration switches into “extreme hard-boiled mode”.

Nameless goes into underworld of drug addicts and must use all his skills and resources provided by the agency to track down his man to the Golden Horseshoe joint in Tijuana where story gets climax with classical twist of exchanged identities. Oh yeah – mustn’t forget to mention home invasion bloodbath. As hard boiled as they come!

The House in Turk Street
Completely different comparing to the first two. Here the trouble finds our nameless hero and not the other way around. By pure chance he stumbles into apartment where some pretty unusual gang is about to divide a loot. And since there’s really no such thing as a “usual gang”, let me just quickly go through its members: there’s a Chinese mastermind, femme fatale, muscular hood without much of a brains and an elderly couple. So these characters quickly subdue Nameless and then he begins the game of the cat and mice. Because very soon everyone tries to cheat everyone else in order to get the loot and/or simply stay alive. Story is full of twists and tension is masterfully built since everything takes place in the single night so narration is basically done in “real time”. Superb stuff, someone should write a play based on this!

Another novelty is strong woman character which is of course most welcomed! Elvira is prototype of born-to-be-bad scheming femme fatale (Beautiful as the devil, and twice as dangerous!) and Hammett seems to like her a lot. For one thing, he dedicates hefty paragraph to her introductory appearance and also let her go free at the end. But Nameless promises himself that “one day…”.

The Girl with the Silver Eyes
Another missing person case - this time Nameless is hired by a lovesick poet to find his fiancĂ©e. He soon suspects foul play because it turns out that poet’s uncle is respectable millionaire and there’s also a case of forged 20 grand check. Which of course is more than enough dough for some crooks to get their hands on.

Again hard-boiled to the max with violent ending but this time it is also considerably darker. With this story being a bit longer than the rest of them, there’s enough time to develop some drama and family tragedy. Plus good guy gets killed and I also felt sympathy for Porky Grout who’s interesting character. He’s “a liar, thief, hop-head, traitor to his kind and the biggest coward on the west Coast” but he’s kind of likeable and you feel sorry for him at the end.

And let’s not forget central character – poor spoiled poet’s fiancĂ©. Without giving too much away I’ll just say that Nameless’ “one day” promise from House in Turk Street has fulfilled. 

The Whosis Kid
Once again, Nameless is not working on any specific job when he gets pulled into troubles. But this time it’s not by an accident because he smells foul play after spotting the Whosis Kid at the boxing match. He’s an old acquaintance of his back from old Boston days. “His racket used to be stick-up, gunman” and since “He could shoot and was plan crazy” he decides to follow him on his own initiative. Whosis Kid presence in Frisco indicates that some job is underway in which insurance companies – main clients of Continental Op – might be interested. Because you see “Stick-ups are always in demand”!

So this stick-up involves diamonds and pearls and another motley crew bunch of criminals. Once again assembly is international as bad guy Maurosis is french, dame Ines is Spanish and the Whosis Kid is "Boston American". Ines is the most interesting character in the story because she is kind of mix between femme fatale and damsel in distress. And she's not very likeable; first time she appears she kicks her dog sharply with the pointed toe of her slipper! Nasty bitch she is indeed! But also "Appealing, and pathetic, and anything else you like – including dangerous."

The Main’s Death
With 25 pages this one is the shortest of the collection. But it can 'afford' to be so short because it has simply marvelous opening. Nameless is briefed by the two police officers about the murder of this guy called Main so we get all the details straight away in a very condensed way. And this briefing requires multiple readings because it's simply hilarious, without a doubt one of the best parts of the whole book. Told entirely in a slang by these two police sleuths, one of them being "freckled heavyweight, as friendly as a Saint Bernard puppy, but less intelligent".

Story is cool and pretty complicated, of course. 20k $ get stolen during home robbery that went wrong and our hero is hired by this small and a bit weird antique dealer to retrieve the missing cash. But job is really just a pretext for him to find some dirt on his young cheating (?) wife. Needles to say, most of the money will be successfully retrieved (including 4 stamps worth 8 cents!) and lady's honor will remain intact. Only one corpse in this one though, but still great stuff!

Farewell Murder 
This one resembles classical detective story, Sherlock Holmes type of shit, and maybe because of that it is my least favorite of all. It's not bad by any means, but I've found others much better.

It starts in some remote village called Farewell where this asshole Kavalov lives with his daughter Miriam (Her face had Asia in it. It was pretty, passive, unintelligent) and her husband. Kavalov'd received death threats from his former associate Captain Sherry who he had fucked over some business matter and who had now returned from Cairo with his black servant Marcus. What follows is pretty standard tale of greed, betrayal, revenge, phoney alibis.



Nameless detective, 35 years, 180 pounds, a bit fat (so we can assume he's not very tall). Uses fake names Parker, Tracy or Jerry Young the bootlegger. Been with agency for 15 years. Had left Boston branch to try army life and after the war finished he had returned to the Agency payroll in Chicago. Stayed there for a couple of years, and then got transferred to San Francisco.

San Francisco,briefly Tijuana and San Diego in the second story. Farewell in the last story.

Body counts:  
1 (+guilty party hanged), 6, 3 (+bad guy going to the gallows), 4, 5, 1, 2 (+guilty party hanged + one dog) making grand total of 22 (+3 hangings + one dog).

My head filled up with funny notions. There wasn’t any room. There wasn’t any darkness. There wasn’t anything…

The entire back of my head burned with sudden fire … tiny points of light glittered in the blackness before me … grew larger … came rushing toward me ...”  

All recent Orion reprints have great illustrations on their covers, but I think this one is my favorite one.  

Cool lines:  
Gooseneck stopped shooting and tried to speak. The brown heft of the girl’s knife stuck out of his yellow throat. He couldn’t get his words past the blade.

Physically he hadn’t gone to the dogs, but he had had his taste of the gutter and seemed to like it.

I knew that he’d have been better off playing with a gallon of nitro than with this baby. She was dangerous!

Once more Tai ran true to racial form. When a Chinese shoots he keeps on until his gun is empty.

What put an edge to this conversation was that both men were talking over their guns.

He looked dead, and he had enough bullet holes in him to make death a good guess. [The Coolest!]

You're as wrong as Prohibition. [The Coolest!]

Plus some great slang:

“Vag, hell!” he snarled.“I got five hundred smacks in my kick.” (vag = vagrancy, smack = buck, kick = ?)

I don’t blame Fag. He acted according to his code. Fag was square. If I had told him that I was ribbing Burke up for a trimming, Fag would leave me alone. But when I told him I was through with a graft, had gone queer, that made me his meat. [The Coolest!]

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