Friday, May 1, 2009

Friday's Forgotten Books: The Big Knockover by Dashiell Hammett

"You speak only of money," she said. "I said you may have whatever you ask."

That was out. I don't know where these women get their ideas.

"You're still all twisted up," I said brusquely, standing now and adjusting my borrowed crutch. "You think I'm a man and you're a woman. That's wrong. I'm a manhunter and you're something that has been running in front of me. There's nothing human about it. You might just as well expect a hound to play tiddly-winks with the fox he's caught."

--From "The Gutting of Couffignal" by Dashiell Hammett.
I just finished THE BIG KNOCKOVER and now I can say I’ve read every published Hammett story, which leaves me rather sullen. I've stretched out finishing up his body of work as long as possible because it's disappointing to know that there'll be nothing new to read from this master.

I’ve included KNOCKOVER here as a FFB only because it's a little off the beaten path from the more familiar THE THIN MAN and THE MALTESE FALCON. Most of the short stories in this collection feature The Continental Op, who, of course, is the prototype for countless tough-guy detectives that followed. The Op isn't as renowned as Hammett's other stellar creation, Sam Spade, and I'm not sure why. Maybe because the name doesn't roll off the tongue as easily as Spade or Chandler's Marlowe or MacDonald's McGee. Regardless, this private investigator for the San Francisco office of the Continental Detective Agency is a complex character. From Wikipedia:
The Continental Op is an amoral master of deceit in the exercise of his profession. In "$106,000 Blood Money", for instance, the Op is confronted with two dilemmas: shall he expose a corrupt fellow detective, thereby hurting the reputation of his agency; and shall he also allow an informant to collect the $106,000 reward in a big case even though he is morally certain — but cannot prove — that the informant has murdered one of his agency's clients? The Op resolves his two problems neatly by manipulating events so that the corrupt detective and the informant get into an armed confrontation in which both are killed.
A big bonus of this anthology is Lillian Hellman’s introduction that offers a glimpse into her relation with Hammett and his work ethic:
I had known Dash when he was writing short stories, but I had never been around for a long piece of work. Life changed: the drinking stopped, the parties were over. The locking-in time had come and nothing was allowed to disturb it until the book was finished. I had never seen anybody work that way : the care for every word, the pride in the neatness of the typed page itself, the refusal for ten days or two weeks to go out for even a walk for fear something would be lost.
Hammett. Hellman. The Continental Op. One outstanding collection. How can you go wrong.

For more FFBs click over to Patti Abbott's site.

12 comments:

Scott Parker said...

The biggest thing I enjoy about the Op is that he's not superhuman. He actually gets worried about his health (Red Harvest) and occasionally queasy about dead bodies ("Bodies Piled Up"). That makes him much more human in my eyes even if he never did have a name. Moreover, you read his description of himself and he not really the handsome, dashing Bogart type. Another plus.

I've yet to read many of the Hammett shorts so I still have a way to go. But I understand your reluctance NOT to finish a book/work/collection by a dead writer. It's a sad thing to say, "Yeah, I've read it all."

Cloudia said...

Dash was a Writer!
Aloha, David

Charles Gramlich said...

I'm lucky, I still have some Hammett left.

Cullen Gallagher said...

I know what you mean about stretching out Hammett's work - I've been taking my time working through his catalog, as I'm always excited by the prospect that there is something out there I haven't read yet. BIG KNOCKOVER is sitting on my shelf, and now that I've read your review I'm certain to read it pretty soon.

David Cranmer said...

Scott, You’re absolutely on the money that The Op is nicely grounded. But Hammett to me is all about his illustrative prose and I actually take notes reading D.H.

Cloudia, He was a one man tango.

Charles, I still have Agatha left and many like Fredric Brown, Roger Torrey, Norbert Davis..

Cullen, You will enjoy and I’m looking forward to your scholarly take.

Randy Johnson said...

I finished Hammett last year. The last book I kept for a few years before finally deciding to read it was The Maltese Falcon of all of them. No new Hammett left, but I do have the new Spade and Archer(as close as I can get to more Hammett). Maybe I'll hold it awhile before knocking it out.

David Cranmer said...

Randy, You certainly saved the best for last with Falcon. I do have Spade and Archer and it will a nice alternative and many friends have said it's good. Sidebar: I was thrilled when Chandler's Poodle Springs was released and I read those first four chapters at least a dozen times before I went ahead and finished the Parker chapters. Nirvana circa 1989.

Ray said...

I like Hammett's shorts but I don't recall this title. Will have to hunt it down.

ARCHAVIST said...

I've only every read a couple of shorts by the great man - shock, horror. I know but I have several of his book and plan to finally get around to discovering them all when I get time.

David Cranmer said...

Ray, Maybe this collection is under a different title in the UK. It's worth digging around for.

Archavist, I would recommend reading THE THIN MAN first. THE MALTESE FALCON is undeniably more popular, but there's something about the banter between Nick and Nora that makes THIN MAN my favorite Hammett novel.

Fred Blosser said...

Hammett was the best, period, and every time I re-read his stories, I always find something that I hadn't noticed before. Always thought that Ed Asner as he looked in supporting roles in the '60s (KID GALAHAD, EL DORADO, GUNN)fit my mental picture of the Op as self-described in the stories.

David Cranmer said...

Fred, You have Asner stuck in my brain now because you're right. That's him.

I actually take notes reading Hammett and jot down the way he words a phrase or specific dialogue etc. Amazing talent.