The Continental Op
Created by Dashiell Hammett (aka "Peter Collinson; 1894-1961)
"I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte."
-- the introduction to Red Harvest
He may be often mistakenly billed as "the first private eye", (that honour goes to John Daly Carroll's Three Gun Terry) but, for all intents and purposes, Dashiell Hammett's nameless detective for The Continental Detective Agency, popularly known as THE CONTINENTAL OP, is THE MAN!
There's no beating around the bush here. Sure, Carroll's Race Williams, a contemporary, was more popular, but he was always a bit of a cartoon. No, if we want to pin down the reason the P.I. genre even existed as something more than a few pulp tales with some urban Tarzans and their death-spitting roscoes, we'll have to place the blame directly on Mr. Hammett and his earthshaking creation. Without the Op, it's likely nothing else, not Chandler or Macdonald, Parker or Grafton, would be quite the same.
Simply put, that short, squat, middle-aged manhunter who didn't even have a name was the real deal. The terse tone, the casual violence, the cold, methodical professional, the cool pragmatism wrapped around a code of honor he would live -- or die -- for. That's what made the op so special.
He appeared in countless short stories in the then nascent Black Mask (1929) and in just two novels, both originally serialized in that magazine. The first, the gloriously violent Red Harvest, was included by Time Magazine on a list of the 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005.
Hammett, of course, also gave us Nick and Nora Charles and Sam Spade. In the forties, long after he'd traded in the typewriter Hammett even dusted off the Continental Op character for a few bucks. He tinkered with him a bit, bulked him up, gave him a name and a secretary and sold him to a radio show, Brad Runyon, The Fat Man.
- For all the hoopla Red Harvest has raised over the years, it should be noted that some fans consider Blood Money (1943) to be Hammett's true first novel, predating Red Harvest by two years, while others consider it a mere publisher's concoction. It originally appeared as two short stories in Black Mask in 1927 as "The Big Knockover" and "$106,000 Blood Money," but the two stories weren't published together as a novel until 1943, with little involvement from Hammett (except, of course, for cashing the cheques). He didn't think much of it as a novel and "not worthy of salvage." In fact, a decade earlier he had turned down a similar offer to release it as such.
- "Hammett was spare, hard-boiled, but he did over and over what only the best writers can ever do. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before."
-- Raymond Chandler
- "Yeah, sure, Red Harvest is a classic. But The Big Knockover is more fun. Hammett's first try at novel-length fiction is two interconnected novellas, ("The Big Knockover" and "$106,000 Blood Money"). He packs his story with colorful criminals, possibly more of them than in any other crime story by anyone. He brings back crooks from his own short stories, uses at least one real-life thug as a character, and even names two rogues "Holmes" and "Vance" after Sherlock Holmes and Philo Vance. The ending is particularly bleak, even if not quite a knockout. Hammett would learn how to do that later."
-- Vince Emery, The 14 Best Private Eye Novels of All Time (2012)
- "Arson Plus" (October 1, 1923, Black Mask; as Peter Collinson)
- "Slippery Fingers" (October 15, 1923, Black Mask; as Peter Collinson)
- "Crooked Souls" (October 15, 1923, Black Mask; aka "The Gatewood Caper"; The Continental Op)
- "It" (November 1, 1923, Black Mask; aka "The Black Hat That Wasn't There")"
- The House Dick" (December 1, 1923, Black Mask; aka "Bodies Piled Up"; The Continental Op)
- "The Tenth Clew" (January 1, 1924, Black Mask)
- "Night Shots" (February 1, 1924, Black Mask)
- "Zigzags of Treachery" (March 1, 1924, Black Mask)
- "One Hour" (April 1, 1924, Black Mask)
- "The House on Turk Street" (April 15, 1924, Black Mask)
- "The Girl With Silver Eyes" (June 1924, Black Mask)
- "Women, Politics and Murder" (September 1924, Black Mask; aka "Death on Pine Street")
- "The Golden Horseshoe" (November 1924, Black Mask)
- "Who Killed Bob Teal?" (1924, currently out of print)
- "Mike or Alec or Rufus" (January 1925, Black Mask; aka "Tom, Dick or Harry")
- "The Whosis Kid" (March 1925, Black Mask)
- "The Scorched Face" (May 1925, Black Mask)
- "Corkscrew" (September 1925, Black Mask)
- "Dead Yellow Women" (November 1925, Black Mask)
- "The Gutting of Couffignal" (December 1925, Black Mask)
- "Creeping Siamese" (March 1926, Black Mask)
- "The Big Knockover" (February 1927, Black Mask)
- "$106,000 Blood Money" (May 1927, Black Mask)
"The Big Knockover" and "$106,000 Blood Money" were later combined and published as a novel, The Big Knockover, also known as $106,000 Blood Money and simply Blood Money.
- "The Main Death" (June 1927, Black Mask)
- "The Cleansing of Poisonville" (November 1927, Black Mask)
Part one of what would become Red Harvest
- "Crime Wanted--Male or Female" (December 1927, Black Mask)
Part two of Red Harvest
- "This King Business" (January 1928, Mystery Stories)
- "Dynamite" (January 1928, Black Mask)
Part three of Red Harvest
- "The 19th Murder" (February 1928, Black Mask)
Part four of Red Harvest"Crime Wanted--Male or Female" (December 1927, ) "The 19th Murder" (February 1928, Black Mask Black Mask
- "Black Lives" (November 1928, Black Mask)
- "The Hollow Temple" (December 1928, Black Mask)
- "Black Honeymoon" (January 1929, Black Mask)
- "Black Riddle" (February 1929, Black Mask)
- "Fly Paper" (August 1929, Black Mask)
- "The Farewell Murder" (February 1930, Black Mask)
- "Death and Company" (November 1930, Black Mask)
- ROADHOUSE NIGHTS
(aka "The River Inn)
(1930, Paramount Famous Lasky Corporation)
Black & White
Screenplay by Garrett Fort
Story by Ben Hecht
Based on the novel Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett
Director: Hobart Henley
Produced by Walter Wanger
Music: Sammy Fain and Jay Gorney
Lyrics: E.Y. Harburg and Irving Kahal
Starring Helen Morgan, Charles Ruggles, Fred Kohler, Jimmy Durante, Leo Donnelly, Tammany Young, Joe King, Lou Clayton, Eddie Jackson
Evidently this has very little to do with Hammett's novel, and instead concerns reporters trying to get the goods on a gangster.
- THE HOUSE ON TURK STREET ..Buy the video ..Buy the DVD
aka ""No Good Deed"
(2002, Seven Arts Pictures)
Shooting Began: July 17, 2001 in Montreal
Based on the short story "House on Turk Street by Dashiell Hammett
Adapted by Christopher Canaan and Steve Barancik
Directed by Bob Rafelson
Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Milla Jovovich, Stellan Skarsgard, Doug Hutchison
Another blown opportunity. In this one, Jackson is a San Francisco cop (not a private eye), long overdue for a vacation, who tries to help a friend find his missing daughter. But no good deed goes unpunished, and he's soon up against an international ring of bond thieves, led by Jovovich and Skarsgard. A cat and mouse game ensues. There's some talent at work here. Director Bob Rafelson did The Postman Always Rings Twice, Black Widow, Blood and Wine and Five Easy Pieces, and Steve Barancik did The Last Seduction. And Jackson was in Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown and, uh, Shaft. So why is this so bad?
- THE DAIN CURSE ..Buy the video..Buy the DVD
6-hour serialized TV movie, later released as a two-hour version
Teleplay by Robert Lenski
Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett
Directed by E.W. Swackhamer
Starring James Coburn as HAMILTON NASH (The Continental Op in the book)
Also starring Hector Elizondo, Jason Miller, Jean Simmons, Paul Stewart , Beatrice Straight, Nancy Addison, Tom Bower, David Canary, Beeson Carroll, Martin Cassidy, Brian Davies
"Except for the fact that the setting was changed from San Francisco to Baltimore (Hammett's birthplace), this was very faithful to the book. It even won an Edgar for Best Mystery Teleplay Special. Coburn's performance as the Op was very good. However, there were changes. The Op was given a name, Hamilton Nash, which is Dashiell Hammett spelled sideways. Sort of. And the tall, mustachioed, sliver-haired Coburn was obviously cast less for his physical resemblance to Hammett's character than to Hammett himself. I didn't regard this as an invalid interpretation, however, since it always seemed to me that the Op was Hammett's fictional alter ego, anyway. Interestingly, the more Hammett removed himself from his lead character (i.e. the Op is a first-person narrator; Spade and Beaumont are observed from a very objective third person viewpoint), the closer the character came to resembling Hammett physically. A very condensed version of the 6-hour miniseries was later released on video." (Jim Doherty)
- "FLY PAPER"
An episode of Showtime anthology, Fallen Angels, originally broadcast sometime in 1993-94.
Based on the short story by Dashiell Hammett
Screenplay by Donald Westlake
Starring Christopher Lloyd as THE CONTINENTAL OP
and Darren McGavin as The Old Man
"Tonight's double-helping of Fallen Angels brought a Hammett and a Woolrich story. The Hammett was 'Fly Paper', which was, imo, v. well done (though theaction, I think, was shifted from SF to LA). Screenplay by Donald Westlake, and the Op was played by Jim from Taxi!! The twist (not the wandering daughter, but the moll) was quite well played too, but maybe because Hammett gave her some good lines." (EddieDugan)
"Don Westlake wrote the script, which was fine. But they cast Christopher Lloyd as The Op and Darren McGavin as the old man when, obviously, they should have ignored their ages and reversed the roles. (Dick Lochte)
ALL THE WORLD'S A STAGE
- FLY PAPER
(1970, East Hampton, Long Island, NY)
Based on the short story by Dashiell Hammett
Adapted by Kenneth Cavender
Presented at The John Drew Theater
Presented by The Yale Repertory Summer Theater
Starring Louis Plante as The Continental Op
Presented as a one-act play; part of a double bill which went under the name Cops and Horrors. The other play was Dracula by Bram Stoker. yuo may have heard of it.
- RED HARVEST: THE OPERA
Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett
Music and libretto by Sean Carson
Believe it or not, Sean Carson, a grad student in music composition at NYU, and a lifelong Dashiell Hammett fan, wrote (or maybe is still writing) an opera based on Hammett's Red Harvest. One scene (based on the chapter called "Laudanum") has already been presented in workshop form in New York City. The full-length version, when it's completed, should be about an hour and 15 minutes, scored for 7 instruments, with 6 singing roles.
According to Sean, "One of the things that bugs me about a lot of opera is that it has a lot of emotion, but not much plot. That's one of the reasons I thought Hammett would be a good choice. Emotion is important to a certain point -- it's part of the drama -- but one reason that operas are boring for so many folks is that relatively little happens over a couple of hours. In fact, Hammett's flat, terse style is one of the things that attracted me musically. It's rhythmic and abrupt, rather than mellifluous. It's descriptive, rather than sentimental. All these things make it perfect for an American opera (at least from my perspective) - we're a "get to the point" kind of people. Also, I think that music can provide whatever emotional and character-related themes are necessary to illustrate what's happening below the surface of the novel."
Unfortunately, the project seems to be about as dead as Miles Archer. I haven't heard from Sean since 2003 or so. But you never know. I guess it won't really be over until the Fat Man sings...
A song dedicated to Hammett. Words and music by Irish blues/rock guitarist Rory Gallagher.
Canadian site dedicated to the " nameless, somewhat overweight, slightly balding forty-something sleuth.
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.
Drop a dime. Your comments, suggestions, corrections and contributions are always welcome.
"...and I'll tell you right out that I'm a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk."