There is no dearth of commentaries on Hammett’s contribution to crime fiction, or reviews of his Continental Op stories. The foremost value of Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett’s Big Book of The Continental Op, a door-stopper of a book, is its most obvious appeal: all twenty-eight Op stories are in one place. Organized. Annotated. The works. The double-column format is a matter of taste, but a future Kindle version could change the layout. Hint. Hint, Vintage Crime.
Less obvious, though more valuable to me are the essays that preface each block of Hammett stories. The stories are organized chronologically and by editor at Black Mask. This is a rare opportunity for readers and students to learn about a writer’s development. Hammett did not start out as a great writer, but he certainly showed up with an abundance of talent. Hammett was a natural at dialog. He also latched onto the idea that readers, regardless of genre, were tired of ponderous prose. He wrote lean journalistic prose. Hemingway was another such writer. Hammett worked with his editors, and the writing shows that he gave them what they wanted. And they also mentored him, though not with Max Perkins’s kid gloves. Both sides of the desk were clear on one objective: make money. Faulkner’s advice to writers to “write about your postage stamp” is evident in Dash’s hard-boiled creations. Hammett wrote about his days as a Pinkerton detective, but few writers can write to specification. He could.
You’ll notice that, with each successive editor, Hammett’s stories become increasingly violent. His chops for description and dialog sharpened. While one can argue that Hammett wrote to market, ‘sold out,’ the introductory essays make it clear that ill health had driven Hammett to the typewriter. Literally. He didn’t have time to have principles. He had a family to support. Off-and-on again with disability, he scrambled. At one point, Hammett had a ‘real job’ and made the princely equivalent of $50,000 in today’s dollars in 1926, and then he was alone, coughing up blood, isolated in an apartment to avoid infecting his family with TB. His stories earned him a few hundred unreliable dollars a year. With each new editor, he had to prove himself. Hammett honed the voice he already had – and I don’t think any editor or amount of study can give a writer that elusive ‘extra.’
This volume includes the serialization of Poisonville stories that became Hammett’s first novel, Red Harvest. I pulled out my Library of America edition of Hammett for comparison, and I was stunned at how the Knopf editors touched every single paragraph. Every. Single. One. Hammett howled and complained (Knopf would later do the same to The Dain Curse). I leave readers to decide which version of Red Harvest they like better. I prefer the Black Mask version.
Note: Otto Penzler and Keith Alan Deutsch’s The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories (2012) shows readers what the Knopf editors did to the original text of The Maltese Falcon. My Hammett on Hammett blog post provides a glimpse into the editing process on The Maltese Falcon between Hammett and his editors. Hammett could edit himself, but it’s a real crime scene with what the Knopf editors did to his Op novels, in my opinion. Perhaps, scholars should revisit his five novels and offer fans of crime fiction the original texts.