In 1962 Lillian Hellman compiled a collection of Dashiell Hammett’s short stories and published them as The Big Knockover. In 1965 she wrote an introduction for the later edition of this collection. The bulk of the stories represented here are about Hammett’s “Continental Op,” and I can’t find any overlap between this collection and The Continental Op collection.
I didn’t appreciate Hellman’s introduction particularly. Hammett apparently joked that Hellman should never attempt a biography of him because it would be about Lillian Hellman and her good friend Dashiell Hammett. This introduction seems to prove out the joke. There is a lot about Hellman and Hammet; some things about Hammett; nearly nothing about the stories. Hellman does not even provide date and place of publication. Fortunately, there’s this thing called the internet, which carries around lots of data. I will include the minimum here.
Hammett spent a lot of time with “the Op,” his nameless first-person detective narrator. The Continental Op works for the Continental Agency, which is a little bit like the Pinkertons (Hammett worked for the Pinkerton Agency). Many of the Op’s jobs take place in San Francisco or California, but in this book, the Op makes a jaunt to a fictional Balkan state, and spends some time in a sharply realized Arizona.
The bulk of the tales in this book were published between 1925 and 1930, and they’re filled with flivvers, gangsters, gats and molls. Women are often the victims of crime – rescuing kidnapped heiresses is a recurring plot – but Hammett’s women characters, even the victims, have agency. They take steps to escape or fight back. They have their own dreams and desires and take steps to achieve those dreams. In “The Scorched Face” (Black Mask, May, 1925) two heiresses are caught in a blackmail scheme, and one struggles to turn the tables on the blackmailers. Another story shows us a family dynamic where it’s plain the pumpkin hasn’t rolled too far from the vine. In “This King Business” (Mystery Stories, January 1928), Romaine shows up as a secretary to a government functionary; she soon develops into an equal partner in the Op’s scheme. Romaine is an interesting contrast to San Francisco’s sheltered daughters of privilege. We learn nothing about her background; she has clearly made her own way in the world, she is smart, tough and honest.
The story I want to discuss the most is “Dead Yellow Women.” For a story published in 1925 (again, in Black Mask) that’s a great title – it’s a little awkward now. It is, however, a description of the case the Op is investigating; the deaths of two Chinese maids. The story is filled with all kinds of mind-candy; secret passages and winding labyrinths through San Francisco’s Chinatown; secret plots, rum-rummers, European-American gangsters, Chinese gangsters and plenty of secrets. The client is Lillian Shan. Lillian Shan – she was Shan Ai Ho when she came from China with her father, when she was ten years old – is wealthy. She is an athlete, a scholar of renown in her field, has published one book and is in the middle of writing another. Shan’s demeanor is cool and authoritative. She is not likeable, and the Op does commit the insult of thinking that if she took off her glasses and wore something more clingy she’d be beautiful. (Really, that tired old “take off your glasses and let down your hair” trope was around in 1925? Shall we blame Hammett for it?) Shan was on a train to the east coast, on her way to Paris, when events forced her to turn back. When she did, she walked in on a home invasion. She was tied up; one maid had already been killed and Shan’s personal maid died in the attack. As the Op begins to investigate he crosses swords with a powerful Chinese crime lord, and we the readers hear quite a bit about Sun Yat Sen, the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty, and the political upheaval in China.
The Op has difficulties navigating Chinatown. It’s not because of “Asian inscrutability;” both Hammett and the Op make it clear that he struggles because this is a foreign culture to him and basically, he is unsure of how the power flows. The crime lord greets the Op with music-hall-satirical modesty, grossly flattering the Op with many laughable names that pump up his greatness. The Op, recognizing that he’s being spoofed, plays the same game back, extolling his own unworthiness and dimness. Underneath the musical theater, these two adversaries recognize each other as worthy equals.
When the Op uncovers the full plot, he discovers that Shan is more involved than he first thought. At this point in the story we see more of Lillian Shan; we see idealism and patriotism and her strength. (The Op sees her, he says, “as a queen.”) Sometimes in a story I can imagine the life of a character beyond the ending of the tale, and in this, I can easily picture Lillian Shan cashing in her fortune and returning to her native country to fight the good fight. Shan is duped and victimized in this story, but it is not because she is stupid or passive, and she uses what she learns at the end.
This story, like the “wild west” tale “Corkscrew,” is a story about the ordeals immigrants face when they come here. “Corkscrew” appeared in Black Mask in September, 1925. The story wasn’t a standout to me in any particular way (the Op’s interaction with the horse was fun) but I loved Hammett’s precise, concrete descriptions of Arizona. And I appreciated the honestly with which characters inside the story talked about how immigrants from Mexico, or coming through Mexico from other places, were exploited and often killed before they reached the US. Some things haven’t changed in 90 years.
This book includes two long stories that go together; “The Big Knockover” and “$106,000 Blood Money.” Critics and academics have referred to these two stories together as “Hammett’s first novel.” (I guess you could call them a proto-novel.) They were not published together, though. “The Big Knockover” appeared in February, 1927; “$106,000 Blood Money” in May of that year, both in Black Mask. These days, we might call both of these novellas.
The strangest piece in the book is “Tulip,” an autobiographical piece of fiction written and set in the early fifties. The first-person narrator was in the army, stationed in the Aleutians during WWII, like Hammett, is divorced with children, like Hammett, and a retired writer. He is visited by an old army buddy, Tulip… only it turns out they knew each other long before WWII. Tulip really wants to talk to the narrator about something. The narrator keeps cleverly blocking the conversation. In the meantime, the family who lives in the house where the narrator is a guest come home. It’s an interesting piece. There is a break and a note from Hellman that the final two paragraphs, obviously meant to be the ending of a larger work, were added by Hammett later. This was clearly not a genre piece; it’s a thoughtful work about writing and life, but I’m not quite sure where it was going. It’s interesting, just to see how Hammett’s mind worked.
These are not the best of the Continental Op stories, but there are some very good stories. While Hammett creates timeless stories, he also captures a point in American history with incredible detail and accuracy. Pinpoint detail, snappy dialogue, thoughtful arguments about human nature, strong women characters add up to a big win for The Big Knockover.