Literature / The Continental Op
The Continental Op was a Private Detective
character created by Dashiell Hammett
in 1923 and featured in around 30 stories and two novels, Red Harvest
and The Dain Curse
The character's name was never revealed
; he is known only by his job description, an operative of the Continental Detective Agency. The stories do, however, reveal something about his appearance — he is short, middle-aged, and plump — and quite a lot about his sense of ethics, which is based on the principle of doing the job and getting paid, with the minimum of interference from personal or moral concerns.
Continental Op stories with their own trope pages include:
Other Continental Op stories provide examples of:
- Acquired Poison Immunity: Discussed in "Fly Paper". Turns out it doesn't necessarily work with arsenic.
- Anti-Hero: The Continental Op goes after criminals and usually gets them. More importantly he always makes money from the gig: money from crooks or good guys, it doesn't matter. Catching criminals is just a dangerous job, and any effective method is a good one, even making deals with criminals or inciting them to murder. He holds to a private code of honour, a tightly bound book his enemies never see and he himself suspects might be nothing but blank pages.
- Big Beautiful Woman: Big Flora Brace in "The Big Knockover", though she's more muscular than many of her type.
- Big Eater: The Op, though it's downplayed— that said, at one point he notes "Even the kind of meal I eat doesn't take that long to put away".
- Blown Across the Room: Though Hammett worked as a Pinkerton Detective and had firearms training from his military service, he happily embraced this trope for dramatic effect. Punched Across the Room also shows up from time to time.
- The Chessmaster: The Continental Op
- Characterization Marches On: In an early Op story, "House Dick", Dick Foley's quite chatty (in fact, he sounds more like how a later character the Op would work with, Mickey Linehan, was inclined to talk). Later he becomes a Terse Talker.
- Consummate Professional: Little interests the Op outside of his work.
- Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The Continental Op.
- Femme Fatale / The Vamp: Jeanne Delano, the "Girl with the Silver Eyes", is a helluva lady.
- Framing the Guilty Party: An odd example. In "The Golden Horseshoe", the Op is sure he knows who arranged a double murder, but can't prove it. So he frames the guilty party for a death that was actually a suicide.
- Gambit Pileup: Hammett loved double, triple, and higher multiple crosses — see Red Harvest, "The Whosis Kid", "The Big Knockover" and its sequel, "$106,000 Blood Money".
- Guns Akimbo: In a couple of Continental Op stories with Chinese gangsters, the Op notes that they like to shoot this way — and not bother aiming.
- Handy Cuffs: In "$106,000 Blood Money", a crook with his hands handcuffed in front of him is able to grab a cop's gun from its holster and shoot one of his accomplices. Justified as it was written in the 1920s before handcuffing procedures were standardised.
- Hardboiled Detective: One of the Trope Codifiers.
- Hidden Weapons: Also attributed to Chinese gangsters by the Op.
- Horsing Around: In "Corkscrew", the Op (a City Mouse and no rider) tries to get a horse from the locals, who decide to have some fun with him by putting him on a meek-looking but mean-acting horse. The Op sees through their joke, and Determinator that he is, lets himself get thrown hard several times, impressing one of the guys enough to admit that while the Op can't ride worth a damn, he's got plenty of guts — and he's got a horse that the Op might be able to stay on.
I had the buckskin's confidence by this time. We were old friends. He didn't mind showing me his secret stuff. He did things no horse could possibly do.
I landed in the same clump of brush that had got me once before and stayed where I landed.
- Inscrutable Oriental: Tai Choon Tau in "The House on Turk Street" and Chang Li Ching in "Dead Yellow Women" (the latter having a touch of Yellow Peril about him as well).
- Kavorka Man: The Op is short, stocky and balding yet is seemingly attractive to a number of "nice" looking dames. He freely admits that they may just be trying to vamp him.
- Narrative Profanity Filter: An example from "The Girl with the Silver Eyes":
She put her mouth close to my ear so that her breath was warm again on my cheek, as it had been in the car, and whispered the vilest epithet of which the English language is capable.
- New Old West: "Corkscrew", written in 1925, must be one of the earliest examples of this trope. The Op is appointed Deputy Sheriff of Corkscrew, Arizona, where cowboys keep getting killed.
- Orgy of Evidence: "The Tenth Clew"note — the eponymous clue being that the other nine are bogus.
- Patchwork Story: Red Harvest and The Dain Curse are each patched together out of four older Continental Op stories. "The Big Knockover" and its sequel, "$106,000 Blood Money", have also been published together as a novel (without any fixing-up) under the title Blood Money, but are usually considered as separate stories.
- Pinkerton Detective: The Continental Detective Agency is a thinly-veiled expy of the Pinkertons.
- Private Eye Monologue: The Op's stories are always narrated in the first person.
- Professional Slacker: The Minister of Police from "This King Business" runs an efficient force so crime doesn't interfere with his peace and comfort.
- Railing Kill: "The Scorched Face".
- Rogues Gallery: The gang of hoods from "The Big Knockover".
- Ruritania: "This King Business" is a weird genre hybrid that puts the hard-boiled detective into a The Prisoner of Zenda-style plot.
- Stout Strength: The Op states that some of his 190 pounds (on a short frame— 5'6") is fat, but not all of it.
- Taking Over the Town: "The Gutting of Couffignal"
- Terse Talker: Dick Foley, a frequent partner of the Continental Op. The Op describes him as talking "like a Scotchman's telegram."
- Twilight of the Old West: "Corkscrew". Yes, it has elements of New Old West as above, but one of the main plot points is the Op making it clear to the residents that frontier-style justice isn't going to cut it anymore.
- Two Shots from Behind the Bar: In "Corkscrew", the diner owner keeps a sawn-off shotgun in plain sight in a barrel behind the counter. The Op borrows it at one point to quell a potential riot. The Op later realises that as he keeps this gun in plain sight, he probably has a second weapon concealed below the counter.
- The Unfettered: The Continental Op will get the crooks he's after, no matter what it takes or how many laws he has to break.
- What Beautiful Eyes!: Jeanne Delano, "The Girl With Silver Eyes". Also "Uh-Oh" Eyes when the Op remembers where he last saw her.