The Big Knockover by Dashiell Hammett

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I was having a tough week so I decided to just reread a favorite book. I picked The Big Knockover by Dashiell Hammett, only because I could not find The Continental Op on my bookshelves. While the stories are very dated I find them very enjoyable, in part because of the beauty of his writing. He can paint a scene so clearly. In the story Fly Paper he writes about a body, “Her arms were stretched out over head. One leg was bent under her, one stretched out so that its bare foot rested on the floor. That bare foot was whiter than a living foot could be. The face was as white as the foot.” In Dead Yellow Women he describes a body guard “He was a big meateating wrestler-bull throated, mountain-shouldered, gorilla-armed, leather-skinned. The god that made him had plenty of material, and gave it time to harden.” The slang in it is very interesting. Yeggs for criminals, eggs in the coffee and duck soup for something that is easy, jungled up for a place to live and bees for money.

There is a casual racism in the book, mostly exemplified by people’s names, which while colorful are the sign of a different time. Wop Healy, Paddy the Mex, Hymie the Riveter and so on. I wonder if thugs had such colorful nicknames in that era. Hammett had been a private detective with Pinkerton so I assume he would have known. Other crooks nicknames include Fat Boy Clarke, Alphabet Shorty McCoy and The Shivering Kid, to name a few.

You sometimes forget how much the Bay Area has changed in less than 100 years. In the first story, The Gutting of Couffignal, the action takes place on a fictitious island in San Pablo Bay. For those not familiar with the geography of the Bay Area just imagine you sailed into San Francisco Bay. You simply sail along the coast across from San Francisco past Marin and you will reach the bay. The Napa River flows into the bay and you could go up the river, if you had a raft, and reach Napa. Anyway it took two days to reach the bay from San Francisco.

There was no Golden Gate Bridge, which opened in 1937 and the short story was written in 1925. I imagine he had to take surface roads down from San Francisco to San Jose and then up to Oakland and beyond. I always thought that it would be fun to write a modern detective story that takes place in San Francisco just using places mentioned in his stories. So many have changed or are now so unrecognizable as to be gone that it would be tough to follow if you were unfamiliar with his stories.

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If you have never read any of the Continental Op stories the central detective is a fat, tough operative who is never named. The op is considered the forerunner of all hardboiled detectives that were to come. He describes his boss as an old veteran detective who has had all of the emotion washed out of him, and the unnamed op is pretty much the same. He has his code, but it is flexible, depending on the circumstances.

The book also contains an unfinished novel by Hammett called Tulip. It is one of the few pieces that he has written that just does not appeal to me. It has a pair of related stories, The Big Knockover and $106,000 Blood Money, which are among my favorites. They have complex plots, interesting characters and some very good twists. However if you have not read Hammett’s short stories this is probably not the collection to start with. I think that either The Continental Op or Nightmare Town:Stories would be a better place to start.

One nice thing about leading a connected life is that when the fat detective sits down to protect some wedding presents and picks up a book entitled Lord of the Sea, I could quickly find out that it is a real book and just as wild as he said it was. Also ranked as the #17,449,108 top seller on Amazon! There are a couple of people and incidents that are mentioned in the stories, such as Coxey’s Army, that are real. Since Hammett said in interviews that all of the characters have at least some semblance to real people this should not have surprised me.

A funny thing about this book is that when I looked at it in a second hand store in Mountain View it had an inscription on its flyleaf that said it was a first edition. That was as far as I got before rushing to the register and buying it. Sadly it is about a 15th edition, something I discovered when I got home. That would have been a great buy for $1.50.

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