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The Big Book of the Continental Op by Dashiell Hammett
Edited by Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett
Review by Steven Kuehn
Vintage Crime Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780525432951
Date: 28 November 2017 List Price $25.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Before Nick and Nora Charles, before Nick Beaumont, and before Sam Spade, there was Dashiell Hammett's detective with no name: The Continental Op.

From 1923 until 1929, the adventures of the enigmatic operative of the Continental Detective Agency graced the pages of Black Mask, one of the premier pulp magazines of the era. The Big Book of the Continental Op contains all of the Continental Op stories from Black Mask, as well as the serialized stories that later became the novels Red Harvest and The Dain Curse. Two Continental Op stories from True Detective Stories and Mystery Stories are present, and one unfinished story is also included in the volume. In all, The Big Book of the Continental Op lives up to its name, encompassing well over 700 pages of classic detective fiction.

The stories are organized chronologically, with each section divided up based on Hammett's editor at the time: George W. Sutton (1923-1924), Philip C. Cody (1924-1926), and Joseph Thompson Shaw (1926-1930). The editors provide interesting historical background on Hammett's writing, and the influence of the various editors on his changing style, at the start of each section. The physical size of the volume may intimidate some, but Vintage Crime/Black Lizard has produced yet another solid book. I own several of their Big Book series, and they have all held together well during repeated reading.

The stories are typically hard-boiled, and later in time rely more heavily on fists and guns in comparison to the more cerebral, less action-oriented early stories. In general, each story begins with a relatively simple case for the Continental Op, but it never stays that way. Twists and turns abound, challenging the Op and the reader. Some of the tales are well written and great reads, while others less so; but overall the plots remain true to the nature of classic American pulp fiction. This is not to say that they are formulaic; I found myself drawn into each story from the start, eager to see where Hammett would guide his operative.

I have been a fan of the Hammett novels for many years, but only had limited familiarity with the Continental Op short stories. In reading these stories, you can see not only the growth and development of Hammett as a writer but also the evolution of what was to become his ideal protagonist, perhaps most famously recognized in the character of Samuel Spade from The Maltese Falcon. This is particularly evident in the later Op stories when confrontation and action were predominant.

The Big Book of the Continental Op is a wonderful collection of Hammett's short stories, and the first print volume to include all of the Continental Op stories. It definitely warrants a spot on the bookshelf of every fan of classic noir and detective fiction.

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