The Continental Op

Created by Dashiell Hammett
(aka “Peter Collinson)

“I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte.”
— the beginning of Red Harvest

He may be often mistakenly billed as “the first private eye”, (that honour goes to John Daly Carroll’s Three Gun Terry) but, for all intents and purposes, Dashiell Hammett’s nameless detective for The Continental Detective Agency, popularly known as THE CONTINENTAL OP, is THE MAN!

There’s no beating around the bush here. Sure, Carroll’s Race Williams, a contemporary, was more popular, but he was always a bit of a cartoon. No, if we want to pin down the reason the P.I. genre even existed as something more than a few pulp tales with some urban Tarzans and their death-spitting roscoes, we’ll have to place the blame directly on Mr. Hammett and his earthshaking creation. Without the Op, it’s likely nothing else, not Chandler or Macdonald, Parker or Grafton, would be quite the same.

Simply put, that short, squat, middle-aged manhunter who didn’t even have a name was the real deal. The terse tone, the casual violence, the cold, methodical professional, the cool pragmatism wrapped around a code of honor he would live — or die — for. That’s what made the Op so special.

He appeared in countless short stories in the then nascent Black Mask (1929) and in just two novels, both originally serialized in that magazine. The first, the gloriously violent Red Harvest, was included by Time Magazine on a list of the 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005.

Hammett, of course, also gave us Nick and Nora Charles and Sam Spade. In the forties, long after he’d traded in the typewriter Hammett even dusted off the Continental Op character for a few bucks. He tinkered with him a bit, bulked him up, gave him a name and a secretary and sold him to a radio show, Brad Runyon, The Fat Man.


  • “I like being a detective, like the work. And liking work makes you want to do it as well as you can. Otherwise there’d be no sense to it.”
  • “I had never shot a woman before. I feel queer about it.”


  • For all the hoopla Red Harvest has raised over the years, it should be noted that some fans consider Blood Money (1943) to be Hammett’s true first novel, predating Red Harvest by two years, while others consider it a mere publisher’s concoction. It originally appeared as two short stories in Black Mask in 1927 as “The Big Knockover” and “$106,000 Blood Money, but the two stories weren’t published together as a novel until 1943, with little involvement from Hammett (except, of course, for cashing the cheques). He didn’t think much of it as a novel and “not worthy of salvage.” In fact, a decade earlier he had turned down a similar offer to release it as such.


  • “Hammett was spare, hard-boiled, but he did over and over what only the best writers can ever do. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.”
    Raymond Chandler
  • “Yeah, sure, Red Harvest is a classic. But The Big Knockover is more fun. Hammett’s first try at novel-length fiction is two interconnected novellas, (“The Big Knockover” and “$106,000 Blood Money”). He packs his story with colorful criminals, possibly more of them than in any other crime story by anyone. He brings back crooks from his own short stories, uses at least one real-life thug as a character, and even names two rogues “Holmes” and “Vance” after Sherlock Holmes and Philo Vance. The ending is particularly bleak, even if not quite a knockout. Hammett would learn how to do that later.”
    Vince Emery, The 14 Best Private Eye Novels of All Time(2012)




  • The Continental Op (1945)
  • The Return of the Continental Op (1945)
  • The Big Knockover: Selected Stories and Short Novels (1966)Buy this book
  • The Continental Op (1974) Buy this book
  • Nightmare Town (1999) | Buy this book
  • The Big Book of the Continental Op (2017) | Buy this book
    Finally. Collects all twenty-eight stories and the two serialized novels (Red Harvest and The Dain Curse), plus some previously unpublished material, plus an introduction by Richard Layman, who co-edited this labour of love with the aid of Julie M. Rivett, Hammett’s granddaughter.
  • The Continental Op (2022)Buy the graphic novel 
    John K. Snyder III, whose work I first became aware of a few years ago with his masterful graphic novel adaptation of Lawrence Block’s Eight Million Ways to Die, dug even deeper into the hard-boiled canon with this moody, twitchy (and spot-on) illustrated edition of Dashiell Hammett’s first five Continental Op short stories, featuring ten 10 drop-dead gorgeous illustrated art plates.
  • Zigzags of Treachery: The Complete Black Mask Cases, Volume 1 (2023) Buy this book
    Collects the first ten stories, plus an all-new introduction by Bob Byrne.


  • “Arson Plus” (October 1, 1923, Black Mask; as Peter Collinson)
  • “Slippery Fingers” (October 15, 1923, Black Mask; as Peter Collinson)
  • “Crooked Souls” (October 15, 1923, Black Mask; aka “The Gatewood Caper”)
  • “It” (November 1, 1923, Black Mask; aka “The Black Hat That Wasn’t There”)”
  • The House Dick” (December 1, 1923, Black Mask; aka “Bodies Piled Up”)
  • “The Tenth Clew” (January 1, 1924, Black Mask)
  • “Night Shots” (February 1, 1924, Black Mask)
  • “Zigzags of Treachery” (March 1, 1924, Black Mask)
  • “One Hour” (April 1, 1924, Black Mask)
  • “The House on Turk Street” (April 15, 1924, Black Mask)
  • “The Girl With Silver Eyes” (June 1924, Black Mask)
  • “Women, Politics and Murder” (September 1924, Black Mask; aka “Death on Pine Street”)
  • “The Golden Horseshoe” (November 1924, Black Mask)
  • “Who Killed Bob Teal?” (November 1924, True Detective)
  • “Mike or Alec or Rufus” (January 1925, Black Mask; aka “Tom, Dick or Harry”)
  • “The Whosis Kid” (March 1925, Black Mask)
  • “The Scorched Face” (May 1925, Black Mask)
  • “Corkscrew” (September 1925, Black Mask)
  • “Dead Yellow Women” (November 1925, Black Mask)
  • “The Gutting of Couffignal” (December 1925, Black Mask)
  • “Creeping Siamese” (March 1926, Black Mask)
  • “The Big Knockover” (February 1927, Black Mask)
  • “$106,000 Blood Money” (May 1927, Black Mask)
    The Big Knockover” and “$106,000 Blood Money” were later combined and published as a novel, The Big Knockover (aka $106,000 Blood Money” and simply “Blood Money.”
  • “The Main Death” (June 1927, Black Mask)
  • “The Cleansing of Poisonville” (November 1927, Black Mask)
    Part one of what would become Red Harvest
  • “Crime Wanted–Male or Female” (December 1927, Black Mask)
    Part two of Red Harvest
  • “This King Business” (January 1928, Mystery Stories)
  • “Dynamite” (January 1928, Black Mask)
    Part three of Red Harvest
  • “The 19th Murder” (February 1928, Black Mask)
    Part four of Red Harvest
  • “Crime Wanted–Male or Female” (December 1927, Black Mask)
  • “Black Lives” (November 1928, Black Mask)
  • “The Hollow Temple” (December 1928, Black Mask)
  • “Black Honeymoon” (January 1929, Black Mask)
  • “Black Riddle” (February 1929, Black Mask)
  • “Fly Paper” (August 1929, Black Mask)
  • “The Farewell Murder” (February 1930, Black Mask)
  • “Death and Company” (November 1930, Black Mask)


    (aka “The River Inn)
    (1930, Paramount Famous Lasky Corporation)
    68 minutes
    Black & White
    Screenplay by Garrett Fort
    Story by Ben Hecht
    Based on the novel Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett
    Director: Hobart Henley
    Produced by Walter Wanger
    Music: Sammy Fain and Jay Gorney
    Lyrics: E.Y. Harburg and Irving Kahal
    Starring Helen Morgan, Fred Kohler, Jimmy Durante, Charles Ruggles, Leo Donnelly, Tammany Young, Joe King, Lou Clayton, Eddie Jackson
    Evidently this has very little to do with Hammett’s novel, and instead is a musical comedy concerning reporters trying to get the goods on a gangster.
  • THE HOUSE ON TURK STREET | Buy the video |Buy the DVD
    aka “”No Good Deed”
    (2002, Seven Arts Pictures)
    Shooting Began: July 17, 2001 in Montreal
    Based on the short story “House on Turk Street by Dashiell Hammett
    Adapted by Christopher Canaan and Steve Barancik
    Directed by Bob Rafelson
    Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Milla Jovovich, Stellan Skarsgard, Doug Hutchison
    Another blown opportunity. In this one, Jackson is a San Francisco cop (not a private eye), long overdue for a vacation, who tries to help a friend find his missing daughter. But no good deed goes unpunished, and he’s soon up against an international ring of bond thieves, led by Jovovich and Skarsgard. A cat and mouse game ensues. There’s some talent at work here. Director Bob Rafelson did The Postman Always Rings Twice, Black Widow, Blood and Wine and Five Easy Pieces, and Steve Barancik did The Last Seduction. And Jackson was in Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown and, uh, Shaft. So why is this so bad?


  • THE DAIN CURSE | Buy the video | Buy the DVD Buy the DVD
    6-hour serialized TV movie, later released as a two-hour version
    Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett
    Teleplay by Robert Lenski
    Directed by E.W. Swackhamer
    Starring James Coburn as HAMILTON NASH (The Continental Op in the book)
    Also starringHector Elizondo, Jason Miller, Jean Simmons, Paul Stewart , Beatrice Straight, Nancy Addison, Tom Bower, David Canary, Beeson Carroll, Martin Cassidy, Brian Davies
    “Except for the fact that the setting was changed from San Francisco to Baltimore (Hammett’s birthplace), this was very faithful to the book. It even won an Edgar for Best Mystery Teleplay Special. Coburn’s performance as the Op was very good. However, there were changes. The Op was given a name, Hamilton Nash, which is Dashiell Hammett spelled sideways. Sort of. And the tall, mustachioed, sliver-haired Coburn was obviously cast less for his physical resemblance to Hammett’s character than to Hammett himself. I didn’t regard this as an invalid interpretation, however, since it always seemed to me that the Op was Hammett’s fictional alter ego, anyway. Interestingly, the more Hammett removed himself from his lead character (i.e. the Op is a first-person narrator; Spade and Beaumont are observed from a very objective third person viewpoint), the closer the character came to resembling Hammett physically. A very condensed version of the 6-hour miniseries was later released on video.” (Jim Doherty)
    “The Dickerson Agency? No.” (Kevin Burton Smith)
    (1994, Showtime)
    An episode of Showtime anthology, Fallen Angels, originally broadcast sometime in 1993-94.
    Based on the short story by Dashiell Hammett
    Screenplay by Donald Westlake
    Starring Christopher Lloyd as THE CONTINENTAL OP
    and Darren McGavin as The Old Man
    “Tonight’s double-helping of Fallen Angels brought a Hammett and a Woolrich story. The Hammett was ‘Fly Paper’, which was, imo, v. well done (though theaction, I think, was shifted from SF to LA). Screenplay by Donald Westlake, and the Op was played by Jim from Taxi!! The twist (not the wandering daughter, but the moll) was quite well played too, but maybe because Hammett gave her some good lines.” (EddieDugan)“Don Westlake wrote the script, which was fine. But they cast Christopher Lloyd as The Op and Darren McGavin as the old man when, obviously, they should have ignored their ages and reversed the roles. (Dick Lochte)

(No, really!)

    (1970, East Hampton, Long Island, NY)
    Based on the short story by Dashiell Hammett
    Adapted by Kenneth Cavender
    Presented at The John Drew Theater
    Presented by The Yale Repertory Summer Theater
    Starring Louis Plante as The Continental Op
    Presented as a one-act play; part of a double bill which went under the name Cops and Horrors. The other play was Dracula by Bram Stoker. yuo may have heard of it.
    Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett
    Music and libretto by Sean Carson
    Believe it or not, Sean Carson, a one-time grad student in music composition at NYU, and a lifelong Hammett fan, wrote (or maybe is still writing) an opera based on Hammett’s Red Harvest. One scene (based on the chapter called “Laudanum”) has already been presented in workshop form in New York City. The full-length version, when it’s completed, should be about an hour and 15 minutes, scored for 7 instruments, with 6 singing roles.
    According to Sean, “One of the things that bugs me about a lot of opera is that it has a lot of emotion, but not much plot. That’s one of the reasons I thought Hammett would be a good choice. Emotion is important to a certain point — it’s part of the drama — but one reason that operas are boring for so many folks is that relatively little happens over a couple of hours. In fact, Hammett’s flat, terse style is one of the things that attracted me musically. It’s rhythmic and abrupt, rather than mellifluous. It’s descriptive, rather than sentimental. All these things make it perfect for an American opera (at least from my perspective) – we’re a “get to the point” kind of people. Also, I think that music can provide whatever emotional and character-related themes are necessary to illustrate what’s happening below the surface of the novel.”
    Unfortunately, the project seems to be about as dead as Miles Archer. I haven’t heard from Sean since 2003 or so. But you never know. I guess it won’t really be over until the Fat Man sings…


Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.


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