The Continental Op (character)

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The Continental Op

He’s a character created by American crime writer Dashiell Hammet (1894-1961). He works for the Continental Detective Agency, located in San Francisco, and we never get to know his real name. Hammett created the character in the 1920s, for a series of short stories he published in the magazine Black Mask. In 1929 he wrote his first of two novels about the character, Red Harvest (The Dain Curse being the other one), considered by many to be one of the most influential novels of modern crime fiction. Hammett had worked between 1915 and 1922 as an operative for The Pinkerton National detective Agency, and used his experiences for the stories and novels. In 1921 he was sent with a few colleagues by the agency to Butte, Montana, to break a strike. An industrial worker and leader of the strikers was killed under suspicious circumstances. Hammett fell out with the Agency because of the incident and later used some of its details for Red Harvest. The Continental Op is not the first hard boiled Private Eye (that honour goes to Three Gun Terry, created by Carroll John Daley), but he sure is the man. He would serve as a model for, among others, Hammett’s own Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer and Robert B. Parker’s Spencer.

The hard boiled novels were a reaction to the British mystery novels à la Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie, usually set in the countryside, with the detective revealing the identity of the murderer late at night, standing in front of the open fire, the suspects sitting around him. The essence of the mystery novel, was the identification of the murderer; in the crime novel Hammett style, the identification of the murderer is, so to speak, impossible, because the responsibility for crime spreads so far into society that no one is ever entirely free of guilt. Hammett’s work strongly breathes the atmosphere of the Depression Era and the Great Wall Street Crash; he had Marxist sympathies, and thought that capitalism was a rotten system, that would inevitably create its own downfall. Hammett wrote his final novel in 1934, when he was still relatively young, and devoted much of the rest of his life to left-wing activism. In 1937 he joined the American Communist Party. In the midst of McCarthyism and communist paranoia, Hammett was briefly imprisoned for refusing to answer questions for a federal court.

As both Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) and Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars were based on Red Harvest (Leone’s movie more on Kurosawa’s movie than Hammett’s novel) the Continental Op is the archetypical man with no name, an anonymous and violent person, living in a world marked by corruption and decay, doing a dirty job nobody else will do, but must be done. He has often been described as a totally amoral master of deceit, and one of his tricks is to play off people against each other. He has seen so much evil and sent so many monsters to prison, that he has become cynical to such a degree that he’s in danger of becoming a monster himself, but he’s aware of this: “If I don't get away soon, I'll be going blood-simple, like the natives," says he, after he has done the dirty job;

Red Harvest has never been brought to the screen, so no actor can be identified with the character. The stories and novels in which he appears, are always first person narratives, and we only get a few clues to what he looked like. He was of medium height, overweight but very muscular, and in his forties. His face was never described.


--By Scherpschutter

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