Friday, December 7, 2018

Dash Hammett And The Continental Op

The earth has cooled considerably since the day that I obtained an anthology of Dashiell Hammett's novels. It was one of those cheaply produced books, cheap paper, cheap glue, cheap everything, and I'm not 100% sure where I got it. Probably off of a sale table in a Manhattan bookstore. The Maltese Falcon; the Thin Man; and, I believe, the Glass Key. I never got around to the third one, Glass Key or not, but I loved the other two. They made a big impression on me. They made a big impression on a lot of people, evidently, because people have been more or less knocking-off Dash's style ever since.

Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald are often mentioned in the same breath with Hammett, but there are a hundred others. My personal favorite was Charles Willeford, who seems all but forgotten now. He wrote Miami Blues, which was turned into a very good movie staring a very young Alec Baldwin as the “blithe psychopath” around whom the action revolves. It's a great novel that moves from violence to comedy to poignant drama effortlessly. There are only a few more novels representing Mr. Willeford's mature work. He wrote pulp fiction in the early 1950s, but those are mostly useful for historical purposes.

All of it goes back to Dash, though. Everything remotely “hard boiled” owes its existence to Dash.* In fact, the term was coined by Dash in the novel under inspection today: Red Harvest. It's the first of the brief series of novels about the “Continental op.” The op is an operative, a gumshoe, a detective, almost a spy, for the San Francisco branch of a nation-wide private detective agency that Hammett modeled on the Pinkertons, for whom he had once worked in that capacity. (The Continental Detective Agency.)

The op's name is never given. His references to himself are very vague, and the novel has very little description in general. Half-way through he is described by a female character as “a fat, middle-aged, hard-boiled, pig-headed guy . . .” Later, the op adds that, “at forty I could get along on gin as a substitute for sleep, but not comfortably.”

The novel Red Harvest, written in 1929, has aged remarkably well. It's character driven, and people haven't changed that much. Not really. I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in hard boiled fiction, detective stories, historical gangsters, old-time American slang, or Prohibition America. It's a good read.

I don't know how Amazon gets away with charging full price for novels by guys who are long dead, but I'm no copyright expert. Supply and demand, I suppose. But it's only money. Better spent on Red Harvest for your Kindle than wasted on a couple of lattes.

*The word at least, and most of the genre anyway. With a nod to Hemingway's short story, the Killers, of 1927. 

No comments: