THE CONTINENTAL OP: HAMMETT’S FIRST HARD-BOILED DETECTIVE

Ever heard of a writer named Carroll John Daly, or a character named Terry Mack?  Most people haven't, but Daly's "Three Gun Terry" is generally recognized as the very first hard-boiled detective story.  Debuting in the pulp pages of Black Mask in May 1923, Terry Mack was more cartoon than believable character. Using any or all of his three pistols, Terry never hesitated to blow away anyone who crossed him.  Oddly enough, this psychotic behavior never seemed to have any legal consequences.

A few months later, in the October 1, 1923 issue, readers of Black Mask were introduced to a different kind of private detective: far from the ultramacho antics of Terry Mack, this detective was short, plump and middle aged, and was more interested in gathering clues than keeping the bullet manufacturers in business.  The story was called "Arson Plus," and was written by a fellow calling himself Peter Collinson. In reality "Collinson" was Dashiell Hammett, former operative of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.  The character was an instant hit, and soon Hammett began writing under his own name.  

The fat little detective's true name name was never revealed; sometimes referred to as "The Continental Detective," or "The Man from Continental," the moniker that finally stuck was "The Continental Op" (short for operative).

The Op had no personal stake in his cases; he investigated for one reason only:  he'd been hired to, and he wanted to give the clients their money's worth.  

Between 1923 and 1930 there were 36 Continental Op stories published, almost all in Black Mask. Four of these stories were combined and reworked to become Hammett's first hardback novel, Red Harvest. Four others were retooled to become The Dain Curse, Hammett's next novel.  Since these eight stories have never been reprinted in their original form, it would probably be more accurate to say that there are 28 stories and two full-length novels.

LOCATING THE OP STORIES TODAY

All but two of the Op's adventures are included in these four books, all of which are relatively easy to find:

The Continental Op, 1974, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, is also readily available, but doesn't contain any Op stories that aren't in the books above. To get those last two stories, you'll have to track down these two long-out-of-print collections:

The good news is that both of these books turn up regularly on eBay.  The bad news is you’ll probably have to pay a premium price.

A COMPLETE LIST OF THE OP STORIES

1.   “Arson Plus” (written as “Peter Collinson”)  Black Mask, October 1, 1923

      Crime Stories & Other Writings

 

2.   “Slippery Fingers” (written as “Peter Collinson”) Black Mask, October 15, 1923

      Crime Stories and Other Writings          

 

3.   “Crooked Souls” Black Mask, October 15, 1923  

      Crime Stories and Other Writings

      Also in The Big Knockover, under the title “The Gatewood Caper.”

      (This is the first Op story credited to “Dashiell Hammett.”)

 

4.   “It”   Black Mask, November 1, 1923

     Woman in the Dark, 1951, under the title “The Black Hat That Wasn't There.”

 

5.   “Bodies Piled Up”  Black Mask, December 1, 1923

      Nightmare Town, under the title “House Dick.”

 

6. “The Tenth Clew”  Black Mask, January 1, 1924

      Crime Stories and Other Writings            

      (Sometimes reprinted as “The Tenth Clue.”)

 

7.   “Night Shots” Black Mask, February 1, 1924

     Nightmare Town          

 

8.   “Zigzags of Treachery”  Black Mask, March 1, 1924

      Crime Stories and Other Writings

      Also Nightmare Town          

 

9.   “One Hour” Black Mask, April 1, 1924

      Nightmare Town          

 

10.  “The House in Turk Street”  Black Mask, April 15, 1924

      Crime Stories and Other Writings          

 

11.  “The Girl with Silver Eyes”  Black Mask, June 1924

      Crime Stories and Other Writings

 

12. “Women, Politics and Murder” Black Mask, September 1924

      Crime Stories and Other Writings         

      Also in Nightmare Town, under the title “Death on Pine Street.”

 

13. “The Golden Horseshoe”  Black Mask, November 1924

      Crime Stories and Other Writings          

 

14. “Who Killed Bob Teal?” (by “Dashiell Hammett of the Continental Detective Agency”)  

     True Detective Stories, November 1924

      Nightmare Town         

 

15. “Mike, Alec or Rufus?” Black Mask, January 1925

     Nightmare Town, under the title “Tom, Dick or Harry?”

 

16. “The Whosis Kid” Black Mask, March 1925

      Crime Stories and Other Writings         

 

17. “The Scorched Face”  Black Mask, May 1925

      Nightmare Town           

 

18. “Corkscrew” Black Mask, September 1925

      The Big Knockover           

 

19. “Dead Yellow Women”  Black Mask, November 1925

      Crime Stories and Other Writings          

 

20. “The Gutting of Couffignal”  Black Mask, December 1925

      Crime Stories and Other Writings

 

21. “Creeping Siamese” Black Mask, March 1926

      Crime Stories and Other Writings          

 

22. “The Big Knockover” Black Mask, February 1927

23. “$106,000 Blood Money” Black Mask, May 1927

(Note: These two stories, when combined, form  Blood Money, which some consider to be Hammett's true first novel.  While two stories predate Red Harvest by two years, they did not appear as the novel Blood Money until 1943, nine years after Hammett's final novel. Since 1966 they have usually been presented as two related short stories, rather than as one novel.)  Crime Stories and Other Writings

 

24. “The Main Death”  Black Mask, June 1927

      Crime Stories and Other Writings           

 

25.  “The Cleansing of Poisonville”  Black Mask, November 1927

26. “Crime Wanted - Male or Female”  Black Mask, December 1927

(These two stories were reworked to become the first half of Red Harvest. Stories 28 and 29 make up the second half.) Complete Novels

 

27. “This King Business” Mystery Stories, January 1928

     Crime Stories and Other Writings         

 

28. “Dynamite”   Black Mask, January 1928

29. “The 19th Murder”  Black Mask, February 1928

(see stories 25 and 26 above.) Complete Novels          

 

30. “Black Lives”   Black Mask, November 1928

31. “The Hollow Temple” Black Mask, December 1928

32. “Black Honeymoon” Black Mask, January 1929

33. “Black Riddle” Black Mask, February 1929

(The four stories that, in a reworked form, became The Dain Curse.) Complete Novels           

 

34. “Fly Paper” Black Mask, August 1929

      Crime Stories and Other Writings

 

35. “The Farewell Murder”  Black Mask, February 1930

      Crime Stories and Other Writings          

 

36. “Death and Company”  Black Mask, November 1930

      Return of the Continental Op, 1945