In theory, the staying power of the great detectives of fiction should derive from their ability to solve the toughest cases. Sherlock Holmes, for instance, uses deductive reasoning to trace breadcrumb paths that few others could follow. In that respect, the elusive Continental Op, Dashiell Hammett’s most lasting creation, deserves his place in the annals of crime fiction. Not only does the Op, named in metonymy after the detective agency for which he works, crack the tricky whodunits that noir is famous for, but he also deals with some of the most morally unscrupulous characters in the hardboiled genre.
The plot arc of Red Harvest, the first novel to feature the Op that was initially serialized in the legendary pulp magazine Black Mask, involves the Op going to the titular Poisonville (actually “Personville”, but so named due to an alternate pronunciation that happens to accurately describe its moral status), only to end up on a crusade to clean up the irretrievably corrupt town. The Op ultimately finds that solving the initial mystery wouldn’t have done any good for Personville, or himself. Red Harvest concludes in a bloodbath that Quentin Tarantino would have loved to shoot, but the epistemological futility of the novel is classic trope of not just noir, but also of Hammett’s fiction, including and especially the tales of the Op.
Over the course of nearly 30 short stories and two novels, Red Harvest and The Dain Curse, Hammett developed the Op into a character whose depth ranks several notches above most sleuths of his era. The tales of the Op have been widely available for several decades now, albeit in varying editions that were never able to bring all Op narratives together in a single space. Thanks to the work of Hammett scholar Richard Layman and Hammett’s granddaughter Julie M. Rivett, noted crime fiction publisher Black Lizard adds to its roster the first complete presentation of the Continental Op stories, aptly titled The Big Book of the Continental Op.
Old-school dime store fiction has a reputation for being breezy, the kind of thing one could read on a one-way bus commute, and many of the stories in this collection live up to that expectation. But Layman and Rivett’s expertise on Hammett’s fiction broadly – Rivett’s informed both by her knowledge of her grandfather’s writing and her work as the executor of his literary estate – makes a strong case for the Op’s literary importance. Far from a stock character who gives continuity to a collection of murder mysteries, the Op stands alone as one of the early 20th century’s most invaluable literary characters.
Only the dogged collectors of the Op stories and novels will find The Big Book of the Continental Op redundant, and undoubtedly those same collectors’ completist tendencies will goad them into purchasing this collection for its exclusive claim to the unfinished story ,”Three Dimes”. Those either decently or peripherally familiar with Hammett’s work will benefit from this volume’s exhaustive construction: over the course of nearly 800 dual-column pages, The Big Book includes all completed Op stories and the incomplete “Three Dimes” (retrieved from a research archive at the University of Texas), the serialized versions of Red Harvest and The Dain Curse that initially appeared in Black Mask, and a textual apparatus with thorough but concise scholarship by Layman and Rivett. The Op stories are organized in a tripartite structure, with each section named for the editor who worked with Hammett on their publication: George W. Sutton, Philip C. Cody, and Joseph Thompson Shaw. In between the serialized novels, which conclude this volume, Layman and Rivett place “Three Dimes”, a great archival find that will nonetheless leave mystery diehards wanting for its fragmentary status.
The success of The Big Book is hard to deny for how it establishes a complete corpus of Op-related materials. No other volume offers readers the chance to trace the Op’s development over the course of a decade; the real reward of this book is how it allows readers to flip back and forth between early and late Op stories to see how, if at all, the character evolves and changes. Layman and Rivett advance editor-specific claims about how the Op transformed: for example, under Cody’s editorship, Hammett doubled the word count and cranked up the violence of his Op mysteries. Of course, even a convincing scholarly account need not be definitive interpretively, and it’s really up to the reader to see if Layman and Rivett get the Op right. They both rightly argue that stories and characters don’t evolve in a vacuum, and that material circumstances and editorial inputs can affect the most inventive of writers. The repeat re-readings that these Op stories encourage, however, will make even the excellent scholarship of Layman and Rivett seem like only one side of the story. That delight in uncertainty, the same thing that makes the great Op tales so suspenseful, makes The Big Book of the Continental Op an essential addition to the bookshelf of anyone who loves crime fiction.