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Literature / The Continental Op

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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.note 

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 stocky — 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.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: "This King Business" concludes with Colonel Einarson getting torn apart by a mob of his own soldiers. The Continental Op hates mob justice on principle and can't help but sympathize with the villain (while comparing the mob to a pack of wild animals) even after acknowledging this guy needed to die.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Nancy Regan in "The Big Knockover" fell for Red O'Leary due to this; it comes back to bite her in her pretty little ass in this story and especially "$106,000 Blood Money".
  • Amazonian Beauty: Big Flora Brace in "The Big Knockover"; the Op describes her as "broad-shouldered, deep-bosomed, thick-armed, with a pink throat that for all its smoothness was muscled like a wrestler's."
  • 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 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.
  • Booked Full of Mooks: "The Big Knockover" provides a rare third-party perspective on this maneuver. In the aftermath of a massive bank robbery, the Continental Op tails the gangster Red O'Leary, suspected to be close to the ringleaders of the operation. O'Leary goes into a nightclub with his girlfriend, and the Op follows. As the club fills up with other customers at an unusually early hour, the Op notices how few women there are, how the other tables are occupied by "rat-faced men, hatched-faced men, square-jawed men"—who are all keeping an eye on O'Leary. The Op realizes that these are all the lower-rung gangsters who participated in the robbery and got screwed out of their share of the cash, and now they suspect O'Leary knows where the money is. Red O'Leary also realizes exactly what's happening—and sticks around anyway because he's headstrong and foolish enough to think he can take them all on. Sure enough, the leader of the angry gangsters, Bluepoint Vance, is the last to arrive, and when the discussion between him and O'Leary breaks down, all the others attack. The Op intervenes to get O'Leary out alive, cursing his foolishness at every step of the way.
  • 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.
  • Do with Him as You Will: In "This King Business", how the Minister of Police deals with Colonel Einarson. He presents a letter proving that Einarson murdered the beloved previous leader of the revolution, then throws him to the soldiers he had terrorized up to this point. Those soldiers descend on him and tear him apart—the Op guesses the man must have died within half a minute.
  • "Die Hard" on an X: In "The Gutting of Couffignal," the Op finds himself the only resistance when a gang of thugs invades an otherwise deserted island community intent on Taking Over the Town.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The Continental Op.
  • Fake Alibi: Lampshaded in "The Girl with the Silver Eyes". The Op's client winds up murdered just in front of a speakeasy, and the Op suspects either "Tin-Star" Joplin, Fag Kilcourse, or Jeane Delano did it—but Porky Grout, his informant, claims all three of them were on the back porch when the murder happened. The Op half-suspects that Porky is lying to provide the killer an alibi, but also knows that if he presses the issue, a dozen of Joplin's cronies will also lie to strengthen their boss's alibi.
    But there was this about it: if Joplin, Kilcourse, or the girl had [...] fixed my informant, then it was hopeless for me to try to prove that they weren't on the rear porch when the shot was fired. Joplin had a crowd of hangers-on who would swear to anything he told them without batting an eye. There would be a dozen supposed witnesses to their presence on the rear porch.
  • Femme Fatale / The Vamp: Jeanne Delano, the "Girl with the Silver Eyes," is a helluva lady.
  • First-Person Smartass: The Op is just full of sarcastic opinions about his clients and the situations he gets into.
  • 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 "The Big Knockover," a crook with his hands handcuffed in front of him is able to grab a cop's gun from its holster and shoot at one of his accomplices. Justified as it was written in the 1920s before handcuffing procedures were standardized.
  • Hardboiled Detective: One of the Trope Codifiers.
  • Hidden Weapons: Also attributed to Chinese gangsters by the Op. For example, in "The House in Turk Street":
    The Chinese are a thorough people; if one of them carries a gun at all, he usually carries two or three or more. (I remember picking up one in Oakland during the last Tong war, who had five on him—one under each armpit, one on each hip, and one in his waistband.) One gun had been taken from Tai, and if they tried to truss him up without frisking him, there was likely to be fireworks.
  • Hollywood Blanks: A minor crook steals the Op's gun and shoots him in the gut before fleeing. As it turns out, the Op actually anticipated this and loaded his own gun with blanks. He still gets a painful burn from the shot (and it ruins his shirt), but doesn't suffer any long-term harm.
  • Honor Among Thieves: The concept is thoroughly mocked in "The Big Knockover" and "$106,000 Blood Money". The minor crook Angel Grace Cardigan sincerely believes in a code of honor amongst thieves, one that includes never cooperating with the law. Everyone else regards her as a self-destructive case of Honor Before Reason—especially when she refuses to cooperate with the police or the Continental Detective Agency, even though they have a common enemy.
    "You know what'll happen if she learns you're stringing along with me?"
    "Uh-huh. She'll chuck a convulsion—kind of balmy on the subject of keeping clear of the police, isn't she?"
    "She is—somebody told her something about honor among thieves once and she's never got over it. Her brother's doing a hitch up north right now — Johnny the Plumber sold him out. Her man Paddy was mowed down by his pals. Did either of those things wake her up? Not a chance. She'd rather have Papadopoulos go free than join forces with us."
  • 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).
  • Job Title: The protagonist is an operative for the Continental Detective Agency.
  • 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.
  • More Dakka: Another stereotype the Op attributes to Chinese gangsters. In "The House in Turk Street":
    Once more Tai ran true to racial form. When a Chinese shoots, he keeps on shooting until his gun is empty.
    When I yanked Tai over backwards by his fat throat, and slammed him to the floor, his guns were still barking metal; and they clicked empty as I got a knee on one of his arms.
  • 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.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: At the end of "$106,000 Blood Money", the Op directly compares himself to the Big Bad of the story: "'Yeah,' I said sourly, 'I'm another Papadopoulos.'" Specifically, Papadopoulous had organized a massive bank robbery—then arranged for all the robbers (excepting his inner circle) to kill each other, so he could keep more of the money for himself. So the Continental Op raided Papadopoulous's hideout, with a team including a cooperative criminal and a Continental agent who's actually a mole—then the Op arranged for the criminal to kill the mole, then get killed himself.
  • Omnibus: The 2017 compilation The Big Book of the Continental Op (published by Vintage Crime / Black Lizard) is the first to collect all of Hammett's Continental Op stories, in their original unabridged form. This also includes unpublished stories, and the original serialized versions of Red Harvest and The Dain Curse. It's over 700 pages long.
  • 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.
  • Ruritania: "This King Business" is a weird genre hybrid that puts the hard-boiled detective into a The Prisoner of Zenda-style plot. It's set in the Balkan nation of Muravia, a mostly agricultural state formed in the aftermath of World War I because none of its neighbors—Greece, Albania, and Yugoslavia—particularly wanted the land, but also couldn't stand to see their rivals get it.
  • Stealth Sequel: "The Girl with the Silver Eyes" is about the search for a missing fiancee, Jeane Delano. When the Op finally finds her, he recognizes her as Elvira, the Femme Fatale who escaped at the end of "The House in Turk Street".
  • Stout Strength: The Op states that some of his 190 pounds (on a short frame— 5'6") is fat, but not all of it.
  • Stupidity Is the Only Option: When the Op gets captured by Big Flora Brace in "The Big Knockover", he makes an uneasy alliance with an old Greek man who claims to also be Big Flora's prisoner, and who schemes with the Op for both of them to escape. The Op figures out straight away that this old man is up to more than he's letting on, but can't figure out what his game really is—and in any case he has no choice but to play along, because otherwise Big Flora is going to kill him. Only after they get away does the Op find out the old man is actually Papadopoulos, The Man Behind the Man of the recent massive bank robbery. And the Op helped him both escape the police and leave his accomplices behind to take the fall for him.
  • 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, 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.