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The Continental Op
Created byDashiell Hammett CreatorDashiell Hammett
First appearanceBlack Mask, October 1923 issue OccupationPrivate Detectives and Investigators SimilarSam Spade, Nick and Nora Charles, Lew Archer, Philip Marlowe, Ruth Wonderly
The Continental Op is a fictional character created by Dashiell Hammett. He is a private investigator employed as an operative of the Continental Detective Agency's San Francisco office. His name is never mentioned in any story.
The Continental Op is a master of deceit in the exercise of his profession. In his 1927 Black Mask story "$106,000 Blood Money" the Op is confronted with two dilemmas: shall he expose a corrupt fellow detective, thereby hurting the reputation of his agency; and shall he also allow an informant to collect the $106,000 reward (equivalent to approximately $1,460,000 in 2017 dollars) in a big case even though he is morally certain—but cannot prove—that the informant has murdered one of his agency's clients? The Op resolves his two problems neatly by manipulating events so that the corrupt detective and the informant get into an armed confrontation in which both are killed.
Decades of witnessing human cruelty, misery, and ruin, as well as being instrumental in sending hundreds of people to jail, or to the gallows, have greatly weakened the Op's natural sympathy with his fellow men. He fears becoming like his boss, "The Old Man", whom he describes as "a shell, without any human feelings whatsoever".
In the penultimate chapter of The Dain Curse, a female client, whose life the Op has saved three times, while also curing her of morphine addiction, says to him:
The Op is the first major hardboiled detective later developed in such characters as Hammett's own Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer and others.
The Continental Op made his debut in an October 1923 issue of Black Mask, making him one of the earliest hard-boiled private detective characters to appear in the pulp magazines of the early twentieth century. He appeared in 36 short stories, all but two of which appeared in Black Mask.
In 1927, Hammett began writing linked stories, which formed the basis for his first two novels, Red Harvest and The Dain Curse, both released in 1929. Two other stories, "The Big Knockover" and "$106,000 Blood Money" were published as Blood Money in 1943. Hammett also wrote a two-story sequence in the summer of 1924 consisting of ",The House on Turk Street" and "The Girl with the Silver Eyes." These were recently published (along with The Dain Curse,The Glass Key, and Blood Money) in a Modern Library edition, though they are not officially called a novel as was Blood Money.
Of the 28 stories not a part of Red Harvest or The Dain Curse, 26 are available in one of three collections from Vintage Crime, The Big Knockover (1966), The Continental Op (1974), and Nightmare Town (1999), and/or the Library of America collection Crime Stories and Other Writings (2001).
A number of collections of Hammett stories, both books collecting Continental Op stories (The Continental Op, The Return of the Continental Op) and others with miscellaneous Hammett stories, were published as Dell mapbacks. These collections all contained introductory essays by Ellery Queen. A more recent edition contains a short introduction by Columbia professor Steven Marcus.
Complete list of stories
BK = These stories are collected in The Big Knockover
CO = These stories are collected in The Continental Op
RO = These stories are collected in The Return Of the Continental Op
NT = These stories are collected in Nightmare Town
CS = These stories are collected in Crime Stories and Other Writings
"Arson Plus" (Black Mask, Oct. 1, 1923) (as Peter Collinson) (CS). Suspecting insurance fraud, the Op investigates the burning of an isolated farmhouse and its reclusive inhabitant.
"Slippery Fingers" (Black Mask, 15 Oct. 1923) (as Peter Collinson) (CS). The Op and the police search for the owner of the fingerprints strewn over the scene of a gory murder.
"Crooked Souls" (“The Gatewood Caper”) (Black Mask, Oct. 15, 1923) (BK) (CS). A bullying lumber baron has lost a daughter to kidnappers, but the Op isn't convinced - of anything.
"It” (“The Black Hat That Wasn't There”) (Black Mask, Nov. 1, 1923). A reckless businessman plotted theft and elopement, then disappeared. The Op relocates him in a pitch-dark basement.
"Bodies Piled Up" (“House Dick”) (Black Mask, December 1, 1923) (NT). Posing as a killer hunting a killer works too well as the Op gets caught in a crossfire.
"The Tenth Clew" (Black Mask, January 1, 1924) (CO) (CS) (RO). A rich man is killed with a typewriter and the Op gets dumped into San Francisco Bay.
"Night Shots" (Black Mask, February 1924) (NT). In a lonely country house, the Op investigates pot-shots aimed at a sick old scoundrel.
"Zigzags of Treachery" (Black Mask, March 1, 1924) (NT) (CS). When a prominent surgeon commits suicide and an unknown wife shows up, the Op and other agents follow suspect after suspect to untangle a decades-old conspiracy.
"One Hour" (Black Mask, April 1924) (NT) (RO). In a busy hour, a hit-and-run leads the Op to a print shop where he's mobbed.
"The House in Turk Street" (Black Mask, April 15, 1924) (CO) (CS). Routine questions on a quiet street tumble the Op into a den of thieves.
"The Girl with Silver Eyes" (Black Mask, June 1924) (CO) (CS). Following on "Turk Street", a dead poet leads the Op to a dark night's shootout outside a rough-and-tumble roadhouse.
"Women, Politics and Murder” (“Death on Pine Street”) (Black Mask, September 1924) (NT) (CS). The Op shuttles between a hysterical wife and a dead-pan mistress, knowing both are liars, to learn who killed a city contractor.
"The Golden Horseshoe" (Black Mask, November 1924) (CO) (CS). The Op finds a hophead husband who ran away to Tijuana, but the wife he left behind turns up dead.
"Who Killed Bob Teal?" (True Detective Stories, November 1924) (NT). A fellow Continental detective was killed while shadowing a suspect, so the Op and a city cop retrace his steps.
"Mike, Alec or Rufus?” (“Tom, Dick or Harry”) (Black Mask, January 1925) (NT). The cops are stumped by a robber who ran into an apartment house and didn't come out, but not the Op.
"The Whosis Kid" (Black Mask, March 1925) (CO) (CS) (RO). On a hunch, the Op trails a stick-up artist and worms his way into a "double-, triple- and septuple-cross."
"The Scorched Face" (Black Mask, May 1925) (BK) (CS). Hunting two missing daughters, the Op uncovers a rash of debutante suicides and disappearances.
"Corkscrew" (Black Mask, September 1925) (BK). The Op is appointed Deputy Sheriff of Corkscrew, Arizona, where cowboys keep getting killed.
"Dead Yellow Women" (Black Mask, November 1925) (BK) (CS). The Op braves the dark alleys of Chinatown to learn why a seaside mansion was raided by Asian strangers.
The Gutting of Couffignal (Black Mask, December 1925) (BK) (CS) (RO). On a wealthy summer island, the Continental Op tries to thwart an invasion when the lights go off and machine guns fire up.
"The Creeping Siamese" (Black Mask, March 1926) (CS). A man dies in the Continental office without revealing who knifed him. The Op connects the crime with the victim's decade-old adventures in Asia.
"The Big Knockover" (Black Mask, February 1927) (BK) (CS). An army of imported gangsters raided two banks, and the Op dodges bullets and fists to find the mastermind.
"$106,000 Blood Money" (Black Mask, May 1927) (BK) (CS). In the aftermath of "The Big Knockover", the Op hunts the double-crossing mastermind, as do "half the crooks in the country".
"The Main Death" (Black Mask, June 1927) (CO) (CS). The Op ignores a suicide to get back $20,000 - at gun point.
Stories comprising the novel Red Harvest
"The Cleansing of Poisonville" (Black Mask, November 1927). Summoned to "Poisonville", the Op finds his client was murdered. The dead man's father rules the town, so the Op strikes a deal to clean up the town "with a free hand". Dodging double-crossing cops and crooks, he exposes the murderer. And refuses to call off the "cleansing".
"Crime Wanted - Male or Female" (Black Mask, December 1927). Stirring up trouble, the Op un-fixes a fight and investigates a year-old "suicide" of the police chief's brother, just as someone dynamites the City Hall holding cells. "Poisonville was beginning to boil out under the lid."
"Dynamite" (Black Mask, January 1928). A raid on a bootlegger's roadhouse makes the cops miss a bank robbery. As the mob ruling "Poisonville" gathers for a "peace conference", the Op tosses "dynamite" that exposes multiple frame-ups and shatters the partnership.
"The 19th Murder" (Black Mask, February 1928). Getting "blood simple as the natives", the Op wakes to find he may have ice-picked his female informer, so runs from the law while steering the mobs into a final battle for control of "Poisonville".
"This King Business" (Mystery Stories, January 1928) (BK) (CS). Seeking a wayward son in the Balkan country of Muravia, the Op learns the boy is funding a kingly coup.
Stories comprising the novel The Dain Curse
"Black Lives" (Black Mask, November 1928)
"The Hollow Temple" (Black Mask, December 1928)
"Black Honeymoon" (Black Mask, January 1929)
"Black Riddle" (Black Mask, February 1929)
"Fly Paper" (Black Mask, August 1929) (BK) (CS). The Op finds a "wandering daughter" who liked rough "yeggs" and ended up dead.
"The Farewell Murder" (Black Mask, February 1930) (CO) (CS). The Op struggles to prove a vendetta-bent sadist wasn't nine hours away at the time of a grisly killing.
"Death and Company" (Black Mask, November 1930) (RO). Kidnappers collect ransom money from under the noses of the police, then kill their hostage. Death catches the culprit before the Op can.
In 1978, The Dain Curse was made into a six-hour CBS television miniseries starring James Coburn. For the miniseries, the Op was named Hamilton Nash (his creator's name 'spelled sideways'.).
In 1995, Christopher Lloyd played The Continental Op in Fly Paper, an episode of the TV anthology series Fallen Angels adapted from Hammett's short story, co-starring Darren McGavin as The Old Man.