Hammett: Coining “The Continental Op”

Was it Cap Shaw? Was it some unheralded editorial assistant?

Terry Zobeck plunged into his Black Mask collection to check on who first used the coinage “The Continental Op” to describe Hammett’s short fat Frisco sleuth.

That’s with a capital C, of course, but also with a capital O — has to be a cap O. (As far as I know, the t in the can go either way, depending on how the term is being used). Here’s Terry:

Don’s recent post on Including Murder the what-could-have-been first book by Hammett — got me going to the shelf to check when his dogged man-hunter may have been referred to first as the Continental Op.

I have six Black Mask issues with Op stories from 1923-25. None of them refer to the detective as the Continental Op either in the table of contents or in the editor’s introduction.

Two of them refer to him as “the San Francisco Detective” — not too memorable.

I also have “Black Riddle”, part 2 of The Dain Curse, from the February 1929 issue of The Mask; there he is referred to as “the Continental Detective” — close, but not quite there yet.

One year later with “The Farewell Murder” in the February 1930 issue the editor’s introduction calls him “the Continental Op.”

Looks like, unless some other installment of The Dain Curse or, earlier, Red Harvest, may have dropped the term, that Terry has done the OED thing and tracked down the first appearance in print to use the term that has become the standard. After “Farewell,” only one more Op tale would appear in Black Mask“Death and Company” in the November 1930 issue, and that was it, no new Op stories in that pulp or elsewhere. Terry’s got that issue, when he gets a chance he can check to see if the Black Mask editorial staff followed through on the usage or went with something else.

But the term was not nailed down in iron with “Farewell,” as Terry himself has shown with his articles on Op tales being reprinted in newspapers, sometimes with new titles, sometimes with various textual changes. Not when a 1937 newspaper reprint of “The Whosis Kid” — with the title “Pick-Up” — could refer to the detective as “Continental Operative No. 7.”

My gut feeling remains that it was Frederic Dannay in his series of reprints who established the term permanently — certainly when that first Dell Mapback collection hit the stands, with the quick one-two punch of the second all-Op collection.

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