Dashiell Hammett’s best-known and most widely read short stories are those in which the Continental Op, a tough, San Francisco-based Continental Detective Agency investigator, serves as the main character and narrator. Unlike the contemporary American private eye, the Continental Op is not a glamorous figure; he is short, somewhat plump, and middle-aged. His name is never revealed in the stories although he uses several false identities for the people he meets during the course of his investigations. He has no home and no personal life apart from his work; his total identity is that of a private detective. Hired by a society which appears on the surface to be real and respectable, the Continental Op moves through all the social strata from the seediest to the most aristocratic and finds in fulfillment of his cynicism that all segments of the society are equally deceitful, dishonest, and violent.
Hammett’s world is one in which society and social relations are permeated by misanthropic suspicion. The criminal world is a mirror image of the respectable side of the society. It is a reflection of the reputable world in that its existence depends on that world, preys on it for its own ends, and, in effect, is really an actual part of it. These worlds—the respectable and the criminal—are intricately connected and interact with each other. The Continental Op, and for that matter all Hammett’s detectives, is the guardian of the official society hired to protect it from the criminal world which is continually threatening to take over. He stands aloof from these worlds in which he must function primarily because he lives by a very stringent “code.” There are no rewards for concluding an investigation other than drawing his salary and expenses from the Agency, so he cannot succumb to temptations to enrich himself. He expects of himself, and others like him, to accept the failures and disappointments, as well as physical beatings, without complaint. His job is an end in itself, and since his existential identity comes only from his work, he is protected from the temptation to align himself with either sector of the society against the other. Even his conscious refusal to use the speech of the reputable society becomes a form of self-insulation and serves to establish him as an individual apart.
Written in the realistic style, Hammett’s works contain a strong strain of Zolaesque naturalism. The Continental Op, as a narrator, makes no moral claims for himself and is dispassionate in his judgment of other people’s actions. The characters of the stories are representative types rather than people. Thefts and killings come naturally out of the forces of the environment....
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