this is the 170th in my series of forgotten or seldom read books
The Big Knockover by Dashiell Hammett, introduction by Lillian Hellman, Vintage Books, 1989 – trade paper, mystery / crime fiction, 10 short novels & stories featuring the Continental Op
“It was a wandering daughter job.”
– first line of “Fly Paper”
No Hammett isn’t forgotten, thank god, but his work may be seldom read, even amongst this group (that’s, you, faithful reader). So here goes.
This is one of the very nice trade paper editions of Hammett’s works published by Vintage Crime (once was Black Lizard), and it’s a dandy. But then everything Hammett writes is terrific, right? Right.
I admit that I have always been partial to Chandler over Hammett, sort in the way some people prefer Fords over Chevys (or vice-versa); both have their merits so it’s just a matter of taste. Well, the more Hammett I read, and the reading began with The Dain Curse many years ago, then a Spade story collection, then Red Harvest, then… well, you get the idea. So, to repeat, the more Hammett I read, the better I like it, and I liked it plenty from the start.
I’ve read all of the stuff (I think, but D. E. Lewis keeps finding stuff I’m not sure I have read) but still like to dip back in, as I recently did with this one. I still love Chandler too, but this is the most recent work of the two authors I’ve read.
This collection of “selected stories and short novels” (that’s right off the title page) runs 450 pages including a lengthy introduction by Hellman, and most every page is good, good stuff. When this book was first published in 1966, apparently no one noticed that these stories (with the exception of “Tulip”) had been edited in the ’40s and ’50s by Frederick Dannay for publication in EQMM and various Mercury digests. The original Black Mask versions remained unreprinted until 2001, in the Library of America volume Crime Stories and Other Writings. The original text of “This King Business,” unavailable at that time, was added to the third printing of that collection, which I believe was published in 2013.
The only story here that isn’t Continental Op is “Tulip”, which is a fragment of a story / novelette Hammett never finished. As writing it’s interesting, but compared to the Op stories, it made me restless to get on to something else. There’s not really a lot more to say about this one except if you don’t have it, get it, if you haven’t read it, why are you waiting? I heartily recommend everything the man wrote.
Table of Contents:
- The Gutting of Couffignal
- Fly Paper
- The Scorched Face
- This King Business
- The Gatewood Caper
- Dead Yellow Women
- The Big Knockover
- $106,000 Blood Money
I love this collection! Over the years, I’ve read these wonderful stories several times. But, like you, I tend to like Raymond Chandler better.
I know a lot of people (including you) prefer Chandler, but I’ve always been a Hammett guy and I still remain one. This collection was the first Hammett collection I read, back in 1976, after reading the novels (several years earlier) and HAMMETT by Joe Gores. I started reading Chandler in 1975.. I think I’ve read all of Hammett but not (yet) all of Chandler.
George, they are both very good, aren’t they? This is a terrific collection.
Jeff, as I said, both great and just a matter of taste. I’m surprised you haven’t read all of Chandler, or at least all of his hardboiled detective stuff. Many of the stories were later worked into novels, but they are well worth reading. I’m partial to the Chandler collection Pickup on Noon Street. But back to Hammett, Dave Evan Lewis is the expert, and he agrees this is a great collection, the latter two stories of which can read like a single novel.
I’ve read all of Chandler’s short stories but not all the novels.
This sounds great. I recently read The Maltese Falcon for the first time and loved every word of it, so I am motivated to get more by Hammett. And the description of “short novels” sounds good too.
Jeff, oh my! I am surprised.
Tracy, Go for it, I’ll bet you like it. Also, take a look at Evan Lewis’ blog, he’s been running Hammett posts all week.
I think what happened was, I read the first five novels in a row and got a little burned out. I didn’t go back for a while. Then, I know everyone loves THE LONG GOODBYE but I had a problem getting past the opening and into the story. Somehow, I’ve never read it. I will, someday.
And yes, I know many people consider it his best book.
I’ve never noticed much difference between Fords and Chevys, but even though Chandler and Hammett always seem to be mentioned together as inseparable twins, you can always tell a Hammett from a Chandler. One day I might like one, the next day the other.
I never had a copy of this particular Hammett edition, but I did obtain the Library of America volume soon after it came out, even before I knew of Dannay’s editorial meddling. Now I’m glad I did. I’m sure Dannay thought he was improving on the stories, but come on, really?
Jeff, it’s a funny thing with Chandler. I really like the short story “The Lady In The Lake” (1939) on which the 1943 novel of the same name is based. The novel isn’t as good as the story, but I still like it better than most Chandler readers.
Richard, Here’s the shocking truth: I have read neither Hammett nor Chandler yet and I know what I’m missing. Hopefully, this year…
Steve, when I was in high school (1959-1962) there were heated arguments among car guys whose loyalty was to one brand or the other. I agree with you about one day it’s Hammett, another it could be Chandler. I’ve always favored Chandler, but I’m not sure I could tell you why in a convincing way. Regardless, these are darn good stories (except “Tulip”) and worth reading.
The leanness of Hammett’s writing always has put him ahead for me…and perhaps the slightly less self-righteous feel…