Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op stories were derived from “pulp” fiction, a popular form of reading material in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century. The pulp magazines, so called for the cheap paper on which they were printed, fed the country’s growing literacy by providing easy-to-read, sensational stories of adventure, the Western frontier, the supernatural, science fiction, sex (steamy, though not very explicit by modern standards), and crime. The pulps provided what seemed to many to be low-grade entertainment for the masses. On the other hand, some authors who began by writing for the pulps managed to transform the genre into a vehicle for serious commentary on the human condition and on contemporary society. Hammett’s work, for example, treats a number of profound themes.

“The House in Turk Street” well illustrates this point. It is, first and foremost, a story about the deceptiveness of appearances. Almost nothing in the story is as it seems. The kindly old couple turn out to be accomplices to murder. Their house, which at first appears to be a haven in a heartless world, is a den of thieves. Hook appears to be tough, but the more gentle and cultivated Tai is tougher. The gang is in the business of deception, using Elvira’s appeal to lure young men in search of romance to their ruin instead. Even the Op is not what he seems. He deceives people intentionally in order to gain information, and the entire story is based on the misleading appearance that he is hot on the gang’s trail when nothing could be further from the truth.

In Hammett’s stories, most of the characters are driven by greed or lust of some sort, social institutions are corrupt, and attempts at social reform are costly and possibly futile. Even Hammett’s heroes are anything but saintly. On the other hand, the Op and other Hammett heroes also have a firm sense of duty. Thus, Hammett’s skepticism (regarding appearances) and realism (regarding human motives and institutions) do not translate into nihilism, the absence of moral values. Instead, the Op does his duty in Turk Street, helping to uncover truth and bring a criminal to justice.