Because he was silenced by illness, debt, harassment, and writer's block for so many years before his death in 1961 at the age of 66, any fresh appearance of work by Dashiell Hammett deserves to be treated with special attention and respect. The editors of this new collection of 20 of his best--and most representative--stories from pulp magazines such as Black Mask in the 1920s and 30s remind us how much influence Hammett had on the mystery genre, both in print and on screen. The opening of the title story has all the impact of a long shot in a terrific noir film: "A Ford--whitened by desert travel until it was almost indistinguishable from the dust-clouds that swirled around it--came down Izzard's Main Street. Like the dust, it came swiftly, erratically, zigzagging the breadth of the roadway." Then, in a perfect jump cut, "a small woman--a girl of twenty in tan flannel--stepped into the street. The wavering Ford missed her by inches, missing her at all only because her backward jump was bird-quick." We know we'll see that woman again, that the driver of the Ford, "a large man in bleached khaki" who carries a thick, black walking stick will be somehow changed by the encounter.
Seven of the stories in this meaty collection are about Hammett's most autobiographical creation, the San Francisco agency detective called the Continental Op, a shorter, chunkier version of Hammett's own days as a Pinkerton agent. Sam Spade, now fixed indelibly in our minds as Humphrey Bogart, stars in three others. There are also two early versions of The Thin Man, Hammett's last detective, and both are more interesting and definitely rougher-edged than the slick Nick and Nora Charles versions, which made the author a bundle in Hollywood. Taken together, these stories will remind the forgetful how important a literary icon Hammett was and inspire first-timers to seek out such other treats as The Big Knockover, The Maltese Falcon, The Continental Op, and The Dain Curse --Dick Adler