Sunday, April 30, 2017

Ranking Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op stories

Like the western, the hard-boiled crime thriller is a genre I'm regrettably more familiar with through broad animated parodies and holodeck simulations than the real deal. The influence of the good stuff has no doubt trickled into plenty of things I like, I just won't have known.

I'd read The Maltese Falcon, starring Hammett's most famous detective (despite only appearing in a couple of stories) Sam Spade, but I knew nothing about his more long-running, eternally enigmatically anonymous sleuth.

I wonder if I'll be any the wiser after reading The Top 30 Continental Op Stories?

Hard-boiled keys:

Published in Black Mask
Published in True Detective Stories
Published in Mystery Stories

30. Slippery Fingers (1923)

Ten pages doesn't give you a lot of wiggle room for false suspects or red herrings.

Even if you don't crack the why (uninspired) and the how (apparently scientifically impossible, the author's supplementary note admits), the who is anticlimactically obvious.

Maybe that's why Hammett moved on to less annoyingly experienced detectives in the future.

29. It (a.k.a. The Black Hat That Wasn't There, 1923)

I've got a bad feeling it's going to be a dull and forgettable journey to Red Harvest. But with one collection down and only seven to go, it's just past the point where chucking this in would feel like a waste. It had better be worth it.

The effort that went into the title gives you a fair idea of how groundbreaking this story of stolen bonds and a conveniently disappeared banker is. The twist was blatant from the beginning, and I'm not even any good at spotting those. The one enjoyable moment was our portly detective cursing his belly for potentially giving his location away. Hollywood never wanted the Continental Op.

28. Dead Yellow Women (1925)

Tasteful title there. The sort of thing you feel great about leaving open on the ebook reader while you go and clean the cat's litter tray. Yes, it's quite racist.

I don't doubt Hammett's basing his stand-in's opinions on his own experiences, and I'm not insisting that "modern" values need to apply to this vintage tale from back when we didn't have to worry about treating people fairly. But however much of a nuisance the Chinatown criminals are, you don't have to keep pointing out how round their faces are, how slanted their eyes and how pathetic their command of English. By contrast, we're free to care about the assimilated Chinese American femme fatale because she was blessed with westernised features.

Now you've started him off, he randomly muses on what a great job the Spanish conquerors have done at making the Filipinos polite servants too. Not his most endearing case file.

27. Mike, Alec or Rufus? (a.k.a. Tom, Dick or Harry, 1925)

Entering the latter half of these tales, this is quite the old-school throwback: low-stakes robbery, a solitary twist and not even one fatality.

It fooled me, as they nearly always do, but didn't leave me feeling impressed so much as disappointed that Hammett couldn't really be bothered that month.

26. Creeping Siamese (1926)

The last story before Hammett took a year's leave is an atypically short one at this stage, and a weak one to go out on.

Some of those early stories were over in a couple of conversations and minimum mileage too, but I've come to expect more than a simple framing of a suspicious character by other suspicious characters, hoist by a tablecloth receipt.

At least it avoids being racist this time, that's always a relief.

25. Arson Plus (1923)

The first Op story is closer to the asexual deducting of Sherlock Holmes than the morally fickle Sam Spade. These eggs have a lot of boiling left to do, I wouldn't take them out yet.

A climactic car chase/shoot-out is the only bit of grit in this otherwise pedantic procedural, but it's still a decent mystery. Hammett directly challenges us to solve the riddle in his introduction, but I evidently lack the lateral thinking or the evil genius.

24. Crooked Souls (a.k.a. The Gatewood Caper, 1923)

This formulaic kidnapping plot isn't one of Hammett's most cryptic. In fact, it's 100% predictable – even if you read the version with a title that doesn't give the game away.

Its strength lies in the realism of how the situation is precariously managed. If the tense tailing scenes aren't straight out of Hammett's own detective experience, then they're first-hand accounts.

23. This King Business (1928)

I don't know the background of why this wasn't published in his usual rag, but I tried not to let the nagging inference of rejection influence me. Turns out it didn't need to, the story's weird enough on its own merits.

This is the only Transcontinental Op story, taking a trip to the lovely fictional Balkan state of Muravia. And that's just the start of its eccentricity. It doesn't feel anything like it belongs in this series, and even the Op doesn't act like himself a lot of the time, so why did he make it an Op story at all?

22. Death and Company (1930)

The Continental Op goes out with a whimper in this short and, dare I say it, predictable ransom ploy. Hammett's heart wasn't in it any more.

21. Fly Paper (1929)

We're close to the end now, so a short and (comparatively) simple case of ransom tomfoolery has its work cut out to impress. Instead, it feels like the Op's on autopilot, chasing various people over the city with the occasional punctuating punch-up.

But it's still Hammett, which means the ending with the reveal of the "murderer" is still surprising. And it comes with practical advice on how to poorly conceal a killing that you could find useful, if your local detectives aren't the sharpest knives. And assuming fly paper's still made with hazardous chemical traces these days.

20. Corkscrew (1925)

The pulp world wasn't lacking in western titles, but Hammett decided to shoehorn his established character into this story and submit it to his regular rag rather than taking a risk. Makes financial sense, but an odd change of pace for regular readers.

The Op's skipped town before for cases in the country and on the Mexican border, but now he's apparently a time traveller too. The subterfuge is that he's playing deputy to bag some illegals, but really it's just an excuse to throw in all the favourite western themes.

Nothing wrong with that. Just weird.

19. Who Killed Bob Teal? (1924)

Unlucky Bob Teal's been mentioned at least once before in these stories, which adds to the already impressive realism of the whole thing. Presumably, they're all based on real people to an extent anyway, so keeping the semi-fictional universe in order might not take too much effort.

I don't know the story behind why this was published in a different mag. Is it really a True Detective Story? Was it too lacking in violence for the new Black Mask editor? Just the one killing? Get out of here!

I found this coyness refreshing. But at half the length of usual, it just doesn't have time for the overly elaborate, overlapping deceptions I've come to depend on.

18. Women, Politics and Murder (a.k.a. Death on Pine Street, 1924)

These stories have settled into a reliable bill-paying formula now. Testimonies, suspicious coincidences and red herrings piling up, the Eureka moment we're not privy to, the inevitable brawl, and finally the postponed explanation. I'll forget which one this was before the month's out.

Even if the case isn't up to much, we get a nice tour of '20s San Francisco by cable car.

17. The Whosis Kid (1925)

The Op has a fairly eventful day off, as a chance reunion with a suspicious character leads to more car chases, shoot-outs and brawls than any single story up to this point.

It's a bit of a longer one, which might be to its detriment this time as there are a few too many shady characters to keep track of. But since they're all crooks and all deserve what's coming to them, does it really matter?

16. The Farewell Murder (1930)

The Op's tasked with protecting a victimised party against a pet-murdering psycho from his past. At least, that's how it appears. The turnaround's a little less credible than usual.

This is as distastefully gory as your average late-period tale, but on the bright side, we get out of the city for some fresh air.

15. One Hour (1924)

An impressively concise bit of detecting, if he says so himself.

I was clueless about why this mundane Q&A erupted into a violent free-for-all until the kerfuffle was over and it was calmly explained to me. I like to think I would have cottoned on if I'd been a contemporary reader more familiar with the popular scams of the time. Who am I kidding? I'm not getting any of these.

14. The Main Death (1927)

It was touch and go there for a while. I didn't really think Hammett was going to be so insulting that he'd reveal the masked couple to be the obvious suspects, but then the patronising evidence builds... and it ends up going in a different, albeit still predictable direction.

At least this stands out for being the only murder story where no murder took place.

13. The Gutting of Couffignal (1925)

This is a strange one. It turns from mundane security detail to pirate mayhem so abruptly, I was worried the Op had fallen asleep reading his adventure novel and Hammett was going to deliver the mother of all cop-out endings.

There is trickery afoot, but it's of the customary kind, and can be spotted even if you aren't as prejudiced as a 1920s reader.

12. Night Shots (1924)

You couldn't ask for a more concise whodunnit. A dysfunctional family and a multicultural smorgasbord of servants are bottled up in a house with the Continental Op, and shots ring out every night.

Will he get to the bottom of it before one of these murder attempts is successful? The lack of killings makes this one of the more family-friendly tales, and Hammett has a knack for picking the most surprising culprit even when you already know he likes to do that.

11. Bodies Piled Up (a.k.a. House Dick, 1923)

You complained there just aren't enough killings? That these investigations have been too dully realistic so far? Hammett hears you, so this time there's a literal pile of bodies in a posh hotel room, a shoot-out in a seedy restaurant and theatrical disguises.

This all amounts to more pulpy sensationalism than I'm used to at this point. Non-coincidentally, it's also easily my favourite of the early stories.

10. Zigzags of Treachery (1924)

Despite the extended running time and the promising title, this case of double-crossing conspirators isn't as convoluted as some of Hammett's shorter ones. It's a return to realistic, humdrum, even occasionally tedious detecting after he got a bit carried away in recent stories, as various Continental operatives shadow various suspicious characters over a period of days, occasionally crossing shady paths with amateurs.

It's a lot of saggy build-up to the big double cross at the end, which neither our Op nor the killer comes out of very well. Wire tapping, bargains with criminals – at the end of the day, it's all about results.

9. The House in Turk Street (1924)

As we step over this threshold, things take a permanent turn towards the bloody. The Op enters the foreboding house on the sort of charming errand that occupied his earlier tales under the old Black Mask editor, but now there's a new, more bloodthirsty boss in town, and Hammett humbly adapts.

It's what we all wanted anyway, right?

The Op doesn't get the chance to do much but observe as he's bound and gagged by bickering crooks, but a combination of luck and cunning sees him come out on top.

8. $106,000 Blood Money (1927)

'The Big Knockover, Pt. 2' is different enough to stand alone. If that's the way you read it, you might just wonder why he didn't tell the more exciting sounding backstory about the heist than the manhunt for its mastermind.

The Op teams up with a less scrupulous bounty hunter, which doesn't live up to its promise as they split up and we're stuck with fatso. It's mostly a shoot-em-up through generic baddies until they get to the boss, then there's the compulsory twist.

7. The Golden Horseshoe (1924)

We head south from San Francisco to the sleazy bars and gambling dens of Tijuana for the bloodiest caper yet. Those early kidnapping and fraud cases look positively cosy in hindsight.

The Op may be out of his comfort zone, but he proves he's got what it takes to match drinks with an Englishman and come out the victor in a desert shoot-out. The twist is as surprising as ever, so at least this increasing violence and testosterone isn't coming at a cost to the brains.

6. The Dain Curse (1928-29)

I was looking forward to liking this one more than the other novel and going against popular consensus. But I can't be contrary out of stubbornness alone.

This reads more like a cobbled together first novel than something you'd expect after the confident Red Harvest. There's enough story to fill one of his customary novellas, but everything's seriously slowed down to stretch it out to four times the length.

It's not even all that compelling. Hammett isn't about to go all supernatural on us when he's built his career on stark realism.

5. The Scorched Face (1925)

This starts out like an old-school missing persons case, but it isn't 1923 any more. It's not too long before one of the girls' bodies is found and seemingly entangled in a web of suspicious suicides.

Hammett goes from noir to pitch black in this story of a nefarious cult, incriminating photos and rape drugs. That means it's technically more up my dark alley than the standard hard-boiled thriller, but it's not what I'm reading Hammett for. I'm trying to get out of the comfort zone here, don't drag me back in.

4. The Girl with Silver Eyes (1924)

Hammett brings back a dastardly dame from an earlier story for this unexpected sequel. It's another long-ish one that gives its expanded cast room to breathe and generally be vile double-crossers.

The femme fatale isn't exactly the Op's Irene Adler. She may be slippery, but it's only her looks that get her by, which is useless against a detective who remains as resolutely asexual as Holmes.

3. The Tenth Clew (1924)

This 'novelette' is a little longer than the standard tale at this point, and Hammett makes the most of the extra pages to paint a crime scene so needlessly convoluted, Conan Doyle would be proud. As it turns out, there's more than one red herring in there.

The action's kicked up a gear too, as the Op's thrown overboard and fights the current and the cold of San Francisco Harbour before heroically landing one on the perp's face. I preferred it when he was more baggy and wheezing, but this is what pulp readers want.

2. The Big Knockover (1927)

Revived and refreshed after a year's absence, Hammett's stories really hit their stride here.

We might be in store for more state-hopping and genre-messing if his attention drifts again, but as for now, this is about as definitive a Continental Op story as you can get: seedy San Francisco sightseeing, shadowing, closeting, shoot-outs, scuffles, piles of dead bodies and filing.

It's not only that he ups the ante with the body count; Hammett's gap year has also made him a better writer. His character profiles and similes are funnier, the dialogue's sharper, and his long-form plotting (this turns out to be a lengthy part one) is confidently approaching novel proportions.

1. Red Harvest (1927-28)

The Continental Op: The Motion Picture didn't blow the earlier stories out of the water for me. Being longer, it simply had more chances to impress and didn't put a foot wrong, even if I prefer the shorter form personally. So, you know, well done.

There are familiar Op staples throughout, though unlike some of his pulp contemporaries, Hammett doesn't pad things out by recycling plots from earlier stories that Black Mask subscribers have already read. It's atypical in fact, forsaking the relatable realism of San Francisco for sensational superlatives in 'Poisonville,' where even the weather's grim.

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