Before Dashiell Hammett introduced such iconic sleuths as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon or Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man, he put to work the most influential detective ever to scour America’s hard-boiled literary landscape. An operative of San Francisco’s Continental Detective Agency, the Continental Op was a world-weary, pragmatic, and inelegant company man—and though always nameless, he has remained as distinctive as a fingerprint.
Informed by Hammett’s own work with the Pinkertons, the twenty-three stories collected here—originally published between 1923 and 1930—introduced a bracing, jaded, dry-witted realism to the genre. Written with “the precision of a diamond cutter,” they are seminal masterworks in the legacy of a genuine original (Newsweek).
About the Author
Date of Birth:May 27, 1894
Date of Death:January 10, 1961
Place of Birth:St. Mary, Maryland
Place of Death:New York
Education:Baltimore Polytechnic Institute
Read an Excerpt
Black Mask, 1 October 1923
Dashiell Hammett writing as Peter Collinson, author of "The Vicious Circle"
This is a detective story you'll have a hard time solving before the end. Form your ideas of the outcome as you go along and then see how near you guessed it.
Jim Tarr picked up the cigar I rolled across his desk, looked at the band, bit off an end, and reached for a match.
"Fifteen cents straight," he said. "You must want me to break a couple of laws for you this time."
I had been doing business with this fat sheriff of Sacramento County for four or five years — ever since I came to the Continental Detective Agency's San Francisco office — and I had never known him to miss an opening for a sour crack; but it didn't mean anything.
"Wrong both times," I told him. "I get two of them for a quarter; and I'm here to do you a favor instead of asking for one. The company that insured Thornburgh's house thinks somebody touched it off."
"That's right enough, according to the fire department. They tell me the lower part of the house was soaked with gasoline, but God knows how they could tell — there wasn't a stick left standing. I've got McClump working on it, but he hasn't found anything to get excited about yet."
"What's the layout? All I know is that there was a fire."
Tarr leaned back in his chair, turned his red face to the ceiling, and bellowed:
The pearl push-buttons on his desk are ornaments as far as he is concerned. Deputy sheriffs McHale, McClump and Macklin came to the door together — MacNab apparently wasn't within hearing.
"What's the idea?" the sheriff demanded of McClump. "Are you carrying a bodyguard around with you?"
The two other deputies, thus informed as to who "Mac" referred to this time, went back to their cribbage game.
"We got a city slicker here to catch our firebug for us," Tarr told his deputy. "But we got to tell him what it's all about first."
McClump and I had worked together on an express robbery, several months before. He's a rangy, towheaded youngster of twenty-five or six, with all the nerve in the world — and most of the laziness.
"Ain't the Lord good to us?"
He had himself draped across a chair by now — always his first objective when he comes into a room.
"Well, here's how she stands: This fellow Thornburgh's house was a couple miles out of town, on the old county road — an old frame house. About midnight, night before last, Jeff Pringle — the nearest neighbor, a half-mile or so to the east — saw a glare in the sky from over that way, and phoned in the alarm; but by the time the fire wagons got there, there wasn't enough of the house left to bother about. Pringle was the first of the neighbors to get to the house, and the roof had already fell in then.
"Nobody saw anything suspicious — no strangers hanging around or nothing. Thornburgh's help just managed to save themselves, and that was all. They don't know much about what happened — too scared, I reckon. But they did see Thornburgh at his window just before the fire got him. A fellow here in town — name of Handerson — saw that part of it too. He was driving home from Wayton, and got to the house just before the roof caved in.
"The fire department people say they found signs of gasoline. The Coonses, Thornburgh's help, say they didn't have no gas on the place. So there you are."
"Thornburgh have any relatives?"
"Yeah. A niece in San Francisco — a Mrs. Evelyn Trowbridge. She was up yesterday, but there wasn't nothing she could do, and she couldn't tell us nothing much, so she went back home."
"Where are the servants now?"
"Here in town. Staying at a hotel on I Street. I told 'em to stick around for a few days."
"Thornburgh own the house?"
"Uh-huh. Bought it from Newning & Weed a couple months ago."
"You got anything to do this morning?"
"Nothing but this."
"Good! Let's get out and dig around."
We found the Coonses in their room at the hotel on I Street. Mr. Coons was a small-boned, plump man with the smooth, meaningless face, and the suavity of the typical male house-servant.
His wife was a tall, stringy woman, perhaps five years older than her husband — say, forty — with a mouth and chin that seemed shaped for gossiping. But he did all the talking, while she nodded her agreement to every second or third word.
"We went to work for Mr. Thornburgh on the fifteenth of June, I think," he said, in reply to my first question. "We came to Sacramento, around the first of the month, and put in applications at the Allis Employment Bureau. A couple of weeks later they sent us out to see Mr. Thornburgh, and he took us on."
"Where were you before you came here?"
"In Seattle, sir, with a Mrs. Comerford; but the climate there didn't agree with my wife — she has bronchial trouble — so we decided to come to California. We most likely would have stayed in Seattle, though, if Mrs. Comerford hadn't given up her house."
"What do you know about Thornburgh?"
"Very little, sir. He wasn't a talkative gentleman. He hadn't any business that I know of. I think he was a retired seafaring man. He never said he was, but he had that manner and look. He never went out or had anybody in to see him, except his niece once, and he didn't write or get any mail. He had a room next to his bedroom fixed up as a sort of workshop. He spent most of his time in there. I always thought he was working on some kind of invention, but he kept the door locked, and wouldn't let us go near it."
"Haven't you any idea at all what it was?"
"No, sir. We never heard any hammering or noises from it, and never smelt anything either. And none of his clothes were ever the least bit soiled, even when they were ready to go out to the laundry. They would have been if he had been working on anything like machinery."
"Was he an old man?"
"He couldn't have been over fifty, sir. He was very erect, and his hair and beard were thick, with no grey hairs."
"Ever have any trouble with him?"
"Oh, no, sir! He was, if I may say it, a very peculiar gentleman in a way; and he didn't care about anything except having his meals fixed right, having his clothes taken care of — he was very particular about them — and not being disturbed. Except early in the morning and at night, we'd hardly see him all day."
"Now about the fire. Tell us the whole thing — everything you remember."
"Well, sir, I and my wife had gone to bed about ten o'clock, our regular time, and had gone to sleep. Our room was on the second floor, in the rear. Some time later — I never did exactly know what time it was — I woke up, coughing. The room was all full of smoke, and my wife was sort of strangling. I jumped up, and dragged her down the back stairs and out the back door, not thinking of anything but getting her out of there.
"When I had her safe in the yard, I thought of Mr. Thornburgh, and tried to get back in the house; but the whole first floor was just flames. I ran around front then, to see if he had got out, but didn't see anything of him. The whole yard was as light as day by then. Then I heard him scream — a horrible scream, sir — I can hear it yet! And I looked up at his window — that was the front second-story room — and saw him there, trying to get out the window. But all the woodwork was burning, and he screamed again and fell back, and right after that the roof over his room fell in.
"There wasn't a ladder or anything that I could have put up to the window for him — there wasn't anything I could have done.
"In the meantime, a gentleman had left his automobile in the road, and come up to where I was standing; but there wasn't anything we could do — the house was burning everywhere and falling in here and there. So we went back to where I had left my wife, and carried her farther away from the fire, and brought her to — she had fainted. And that's all I know about it, sir."
"Hear any noises earlier that night? Or see anybody hanging around?"
"Have any gasoline around the place?"
"No, sir. Mr. Thornburgh didn't have a car."
"No gasoline for cleaning?"
"No, sir, none at all, unless Mr. Thornburgh had it in his workshop. When his clothes needed cleaning, I took them to town, and all his laundry was taken by the grocer's man, when he brought our provisions."
"Don't know anything that might have some bearing on the fire?"
"No, sir. I was surprised when I heard that somebody had set the house afire. I could hardly believe it. I don't know why anybody should want to do that."
"What do you think of them?" I asked McClump, as we left the hotel.
"They might pad the bills, or even go South with some of the silver, but they don't figure as killers in my mind."
That was my opinion, too; but they were the only persons known to have been there when the fire started except the man who had died. We went around to the Allis Employment Bureau and talked to the manager.
He told us that the Coonses had come into his office on June second, looking for work; and had given Mrs. Edward Comerford, 45 Woodmansee Terrace, Seattle, Washington, as reference. In reply to a letter — he always checked up the references of servants — Mrs. Comerford had written that the Coonses had been in her employ for a number of years, and had been "extremely satisfactory in every respect." On June thirteenth, Thornburgh had telephoned the bureau, asking that a man and his wife be sent out to keep house for him; and Allis had sent two couples that he had listed. Neither had been employed by Thornburgh, though Allis considered them more desirable than the Coonses, who were finally hired by Thornburgh.
All that would certainly seem to indicate that the Coonses hadn't deliberately maneuvered themselves into the place, unless they were the luckiest people in the world — and a detective can't afford to believe in luck or coincidence, unless he has unquestionable proof of it.
At the office of the real estate agents, through whom Thornburgh had bought the house — Newning & Weed — we were told that Thornburgh had come in on the eleventh of June, and had said that he had been told that the house was for sale, had looked it over, and wanted to know the price. The deal had been closed the next morning, and he had paid for the house with a check for $4,500 on the Seamen's Bank of San Francisco. The house was already furnished.
After luncheon, McClump and I called on Howard Handerson — the man who had seen the fire while driving home from Wayton. He had an office in the Empire Building, with his name and the title "Northern California Agent, Instant-Sheen Cleanser Company," on the door. He was a big, careless-looking man of forty-five or so, with the professionally jovial smile that belongs to the salesman.
He had been in Wayton on business the day of the fire, he said, and had stayed there until rather late, going to dinner and afterward playing pool with a grocer named Hammersmith — one of his customers. He had left Wayton in his machine, at about ten-thirty, and set out for Sacramento. At Tavender he had stopped at the garage for oil and gas and to have one of his tires blown up.
Just as he was about to leave the garage, the garage-man had called his attention to a red glare in the sky, and had told him that it was probably from a fire somewhere along the old county road that paralleled the State road into Sacramento; so Handerson had taken the county road, and had arrived at the burning house just in time to see Thornburgh try to fight his way through the flames that enveloped him.
It was too late to make any attempt to put out the fire, and the man upstairs was beyond saving by then — undoubtedly dead even before the roof collapsed; so Handerson had helped Coons revive his wife, and stayed there watching the fire until it had burned itself out. He had seen no one on that county road while driving to the fire.
"What do you know about Handerson?" I asked McClump, when we were on the street.
"Came here, from somewhere in the East, I think, early in the summer to open that Cleanser agency. Lives at the Garden Hotel. Where do we go next?"
"We get a machine, and take a look at what's left of the Thornburgh house."
AN enterprising incendiary couldn't have found a lovelier spot in which to turn himself loose, if he looked the whole county over. Tree-topped hills hid it from the rest of the world, on three sides; while away from the fourth, an uninhabited plain rolled down to the river. The county road that passed the front gate was shunned by automobiles, so McClump said, in favor of the State Highway to the north.
Where the house had been, was now a mound of blackened ruins. We poked around in the ashes for a few minutes — not that we expected to find anything, but because it's the nature of man to poke around in ruins.
A garage in the rear, whose interior gave no evidence of recent occupation, had a badly scorched roof and front, but was otherwise undamaged. A shed behind it, sheltering an ax, a shovel, and various odds and ends of gardening tools, had escaped the fire altogether. The lawn in front of the house, and the garden behind the shed — about an acre in all — had been pretty thoroughly cut and trampled by wagon wheels, and the feet of the firemen and the spectators.
Having ruined our shoe-shines, McClump and I got back in our machine and swung off in a circle around the place, calling at all the houses within a mile radius, and getting little besides jolts for our trouble.
The nearest house was that of Pringle, the man who had turned in the alarm; but he not only knew nothing about the dead man, but said he had never seen him. In fact, only one of the neighbors had ever seen him: a Mrs. Jabine, who lived about a mile to the south.
She had taken care of the key to the house while it was vacant; and a day or two before he bought it, Thornburgh had come to her house, inquiring about the vacant one. She had gone over there with him and showed him through it, and he had told her that he intended buying it, if the price, of which neither of them knew anything, wasn't too high.
He had been alone, except for the chauffeur of the hired car in which he had come from Sacramento, and, save that he had no family, he had told her nothing about himself.
Hearing that he had moved in, she went over to call on him several days later —"just a neighborly visit"— but had been told by Mrs. Coons that he was not at home. Most of the neighbors had talked to the Coonses, and had got the impression that Thornburgh did not care for visitors, so they had let him alone. The Coonses were described as "pleasant enough to talk to when you meet them," but reflecting their employer's desire not to make friends.
McClump summarized what the afternoon had taught us as we pointed our machine toward Tavender: "Any of these folks could have touched off the place, but we got nothing to show that any of 'em even knew Thornburgh, let alone had a bone to pick with him."
Tavender turned out to be a crossroads settlement of a general store and post office, a garage, a church, and six dwellings, about two miles from Thornburgh's place. McClump knew the storekeeper and postmaster, a scrawny little man named Philo, who stuttered moistly.
"I n-n-never s-saw Th-thornburgh," he said, "and I n-n-never had any m-mail for him. C-coons" — it sounded like one of these things butterflies come out of — "used to c-come in once a week t-to order groceries — they d-didn't have a phone. He used to walk in, and I'd s-send the stuff over in my c-c-car. Th-then I'd s-see him once in a while, waiting f-for the stage to S-s-sacramento."
"Who drove the stuff out to Thornburgh's?"
"M-m-my b-boy. Want to t-talk to him?"
The boy was a juvenile edition of the old man, but without the stutter. He had never seen Thornburgh on any of his visits, but his business had taken him only as far as the kitchen. He hadn't noticed anything peculiar about the place.
"Who's the night man at the garage?" I asked him, after we had listened to the little he had to tell.
"Billy Luce. I think you can catch him there now. I saw him go in a few minutes ago."
We crossed the road and found Luce.
"Night before last — the night of the fire down the road — was there a man here talking to you when you first saw it?"
He turned his eyes upward in that vacant stare which people use to aid their memory.
"Yes, I remember now! He was going to town, and I told him that if he took the county road instead of the State Road he'd see the fire on his way in."
"What kind of looking man was he?"
"Middle-aged — a big man, but sort of slouchy. I think he had on a brown suit, baggy and wrinkled."
"Smile when he talked?"
"Yes, a pleasant sort of fellow."
"Curly brown hair?"
"Have a heart!" Luce laughed. "I didn't put him under a magnifying glass."
Excerpted from "The Giant Collection of the Continental Op"
Copyright © 2016 Dashiell Hammett Literary Property Trust.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword: "Through Mud and Blood and Death and Deceit",
PART ONE: THE EARLY YEARS, 1923–1924,
Bodies Piled Up,
The Tenth Clew,
PART TWO: THE MIDDLE YEARS, 1924–1925,
The House in Turk Street,
The Girl with Silver Eyes,
The Golden Horseshoe,
Who Killed Bob Teal?,
The Whosis Kid,
The Scorched Face,
Dead Yellow Women,
The Gutting of Couffignal,
PART THREE: THE LATER YEARS, 1926–1930,
The Big Knock-Over,
$106,000 Blood Money,
The Main Death,
This King Business,
The Farewell Murder,
Death and Company,
About the Author,