If you’re going to be a regular reader of crime or detective fiction, the best place to start is Dashiell Hammett, and the best book to start with is “The Continental Op.”
Hammett started his adult life working for the Pinkerton’s detective agency. In an introduction to the latest Vintage trade paperback edition of “The Continental Op,” Columbia English professor Steven Marcus describes this early period of Hammett’s life:
“The young man had found a vocation that engaged his liveliest interests. The work was challenging, exciting, adventurous, dangerous, and humorous. It took him around the country and into and out of a large variety of walks of life, classes of society, and social and dramatic situations. These experiences were formative; their influence in his education as a writer can hardly be overestimated.”
After working as a Pinkerton’s detective in San Francisco in the early 1920s, Hammett started writing short stories based on his experiences. His first story about the Continental Op — a tough detective whose name is never revealed — appeared in 1923 in the pulp magazine Black Mask. Over the next seven years, Hammett wrote many more stories about the Continental Op, seven of which appear in “The Continental Op.” Other Continental Op adventures are gathered in the novels “Red Harvest” and “The Dain Curse.”
Later, Hammett would cement his lasting place in popular culture by creating other protagonists, most notably Sam Spade (“The Maltese Falcon) and Nick and Nora Charles (“The Thin Man”). But the Continental Op stories are the place to start, because they are the foundation from which all detective fiction of the past 90 years springs.
The Continental Op stories are characterized by intricacy. Hammett typically starts with the Op receiving a fairly straightforward assignment to find or follow someone but the story inevitably takes many twists and turns before the Op finally gets his man — or woman. Things are never quite what they seem, and it’s up to the Op to figure out what’s really going on and then to interject himself into the situation in order to foul up the evildoer’s scheme.
Hammett’s writing is crisp, precise and unadorned. Some words and phrases seem a little dated as we read them 90 years later, but I did not find this off-putting. He creates memorable characters and intriguing plots. Although his stories expose the dark side of human nature, they also are often funny.
The bottom line is that you can’t go wrong with Dashiell Hammett. Naturally, once you’ve developed a taste for his “hardboiled” fiction, you will advance to Raymond Chandler, who owed a great deal to Hammett. In a famous essay on writing crime fiction, Chandler summarized Hammett’s talents:
“He did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.”