The Big Knockover by Dashiell Hammett. Random House (1966), 355 pp.
This collection contains ten stories, seven of which are set in California. The seven first appeared in Black Mask during the 1920s. Six might be called novellas since they run about 30,000 words. All relate the adventures of a nameless operative in the San Francisco office of the Continental Detective Agency. This character, a “little fat guy” (p. 353) who has come to be known as the Continental Op, narrates the stories. He employs a flat and unemotional style which displays a cool wit and reflects an attitude of world-weary cynicism. The first five tales feature wealthy people (or their daughters) who get into the standard kinds of trouble -- robbery, murder, blackmail, kidnapping, and smuggling. The last two tell of a coordinated though not quite credible attack on downtown banks and the Op’s attempt to apprehend its mastermind.
Because the stories are relatively long, a lot happens before the cases are solved. Hammett has the time to add subplots, present an array of different characters, and move events from one setting to another. During action sequences the body count rises quickly, a situation that bothers the narrator not at all. Readers may be surprised that the Op is not a private eye in quite the same way as later fictional detectives. True, he’s dedicated to his work and has no personal life. But he’s something of a bureaucrat as well, supervised by the agency’s district manager and giving orders to a troop of subordinates. He seems to command greater resources than the local police, whose officers are deferential rather than troublesome. In a way then, the Op is more reminiscent of Jerry Boyne, the bank security contractor in The Million-Dollar Suitcase (1921) and later novels, than he is of, say, Philip Marlowe. While the stories are sometimes a bit difficult to follow, fans of hard-boiled detectives and novella-length fiction are likely to enjoy the book.