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Best-known for his novel The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett is one of the godfathers of hardboiled crime. Perhaps because of everyones high opinion of The Maltese Falcon, I was surprised to be rather disappointed by it, feeling that it was overly complicated. So I wasnt particularly inspired to read anything else by him until I managed to pick this book up in a charity shop for a mere 50p (I couldnt turn down something by a classic author at that price!). I didnt at first realise that it was a collection of short stories; in fact it was only when I started reading the second chapter and noticed that all the characters had changed that I realised. I think Hammetts style is better suited to short stories they are uncomplicated and so much clearer than his novels and ultimately much more readable.
Dashiell Hammett had a series of relatively unskilled jobs before he became a private detective for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. This experience was to lay the foundations for his writing career. He wrote The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man, The Glass Key and many short stories, most of which were published in the magazine Black Mask.
There are ten short stories in all in this collection. Nine of them feature the Continental Op, who was first introduced in a collection of short stories entitled The Continental Op. Most of the stories are what would be expected from Hammetts work stories of wealthy families becoming involved with the citys low life. There are some stories that stand out though. Corkscrew sees the Continental Op (whose name we are never told) sent out to a small town in the Arizona desert to sort out the lawlessness and having to use his wits in an alien environment. In The King Business, he travels to Muravia, a Balkan state, where he becomes involved in a political coup where the army want to take control of the state. And in Dead Yellow Women, he becomes involved in the Chinese community, which he finds unfathomable.
Then there is Tulip, the only story in the collection which does not feature the Continental Op. It is the story of two men who meet again in later life. Both are educated, but both have a criminal past. The story was apparently the beginnings of a novel that Hammett was planning to write, but never got around to. It is totally uncharacteristic of Hammetts work; quite why it was placed in the middle of this particular collection of short stories I dont know. I found it lengthy and mind-numbingly boring.
My favourite stories are Fly Paper, the story of the daughter of a wealthy family who becomes involved in the criminal underworld; The Scorched Face, the story of two daughters of a wealthy family who go missing, after which one is found dead and the aforementioned Dead Yellow Women. However, with the exception of Tulip, all were vividly described, action-packed and had me hooked from start to finish.
The Continental Op, the character that features in all but one of the short stories, is a nameless character, about whom we are told very little. He is a short, squat man, obviously accustomed to being obeyed, and is a quick and astute thinker. The fact that we find out little more about him is not really important; it would only have detracted from the excitement of the stories. One confusing thing though is that because Tulip is planted in the middle of the short stories, it isnt immediately obvious that the author is not referring to the Continental Op.
The best characters are the villains and the various hard-faced women that show up in each of the stories. Some of the villains have hilarious names such as the Dis-and-Dat Kid, The Whistler, Paddy the Mex, Milk River and the Toad; all are colourful, larger than life characters who think that they can fool the Continental Op. None of the women are particularly likeable; they are rarely completely innocent and are thus very realistically portrayed.
There is a very interesting introduction written by Lillian Hellman, editor of the short stories and long-term companion. It provides a brief synopsis of how they met, their relationship and Hammetts character. I found it fascinating and very well-written.
I think this would be an excellent introduction to anyone who is interested in finding out a little more about noir/hardboiled detective fiction. The stories are long enough to provide a good insight into this type of literature, without being overly long-winded. I think short stories are often looked upon as being a bit of a cop-out; something authors revert to when they dont have the inspiration for a full-length novel. Certainly, this type of fiction hasnt been popular in recent years. I personally think that this is a mistake I love short stories, particularly of the crime genre, because gratification is so quick.
It should be remembered that the stories were mainly written in the 1920s and as such, arent always very politically correct. Im sure Hammett wouldnt get away with the title Dead Yellow Women when referring to Chinese ladies these days. Having said that, I have read far more racist books than this.
This is probably the best 50p Ive ever spent on a book before and I would highly recommend it, even if having to pay the full price, despite the one dud story.
The book, plus introduction by Lillian Hellman, is available from Amazon for £5.59. Published by Orion, it has 448 pages. ISBN: 0752867512.
Short, thick-bodied, mulishly stubborn, and indifferent to physical pain, Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op was the prototype for generations of tough-guy detectives. He is also the hero of most of the nine stories in this volume. The Op's one enthusiasm is doing his job, and in The Big Knockover the jobs entail taking on a gang of modern-day freebooters, a vice-ridden hell's acre in the Arizona desert, and the bank job to end all bank jobs, along with such assorted grifters as Babe McCloor, Bluepoint Vance, Alphabet Shorty McCoy, and the Dis-and-Dat Kid.