The Continental Op
In the early Fifties, when I first read Dashiell Hammett, he seemed to fit perfectly an image my friends and I had then of a writer who had made being a writer into a romantic occupation. He had lived in “the real world,” he had suffered years of obscurity and poverty as he learned to write a clean, honest prose, he had written books that were out of print and hard to find, he had gone to Hollywood and drunk too much and stopped writing, he had chosen to go to jail rather than talk at a communist conspiracy trial, he had some undetailed beautiful relation with Lillian Hellman. Compared to that, Fitzgerald and Hemingway were too gaudy, available for anyone’s romancing.
About Hammett’s writing, I now see, we held an ambivalent attitude that bespoke an uneasiness we could not recognize. On the one hand we pointed to the battered paperbacks we had struggled to find and said: “There, with Op and Spade and Nick Charles, is the real thing, serious writing about crime and detection.” On the other hand we implicitly diminished that achievement by dreaming that in the intervening years Hammett had been struggling to write a great, a “mature” novel that would show the world he was as good as we wanted to claim he was. When pressed, I would admit to preferring Raymond Chandler, even to hankering after new young toughs like John D. MacDonald and John Ross Macdonald. But Hammett was the first, and the years of writing stories for Black Mask had to be honored somehow. Our conversations would dwindle into asking which was Hammett’s best book, and, since claims could be made for many of them, it was easier to talk that way than to ask if any was very good.
By 1961, when Hammett died, it no longer seemed as important to sustain romantic images of writers, though the battered paperbacks had been carefully packed away with each move, and one could hardly fail to be moved by Hellman’s eulogy: “He believed in the salvation of intelligence, and he tried to live it out…and never, in all the years, did he play anybody’s game but his own. He never lied, he never faked, he never stooped.” And her 1965 memoir, which may well be the best thing either of them ever wrote, did much to make Hammett into the heroic figure we had all vaguely created years earlier; it was then published as the introduction to ten Continental Op pieces called The Big Knockover, and that volume, plus The Novels of Dashiell Hammett, which had been published a year earlier, gave his best work the permanence it deserved.
Both collections were well received, but not given the rather lavish attention that has recently been paid to The Continental Op, a new book of seven stories selected and introduced by Steven Marcus. I note, for instance, that local libraries that don’t have one or both of …