The Continental Op

The Continental Op

First Dell mapback edition
First appearance Black Mask, October 1923 issue
Created by Dashiell Hammett
Gender Male
Occupation Private investigator

The Continental Op is a fictional character created by Dashiell Hammett. He is a private investigator employed as an operative of the Continental Detective Agency's San Francisco office. His name is never mentioned in any story.


The Continental Op is a master of deceit in the exercise of his profession. In his 1927 Black Mask story "$106,000 Blood Money" the Op is confronted with two dilemmas: shall he expose a corrupt fellow detective, thereby hurting the reputation of his agency; and shall he also allow an informant to collect the $106,000 reward (equivalent to approximately $1,450,000 in 2016 dollars[1]) in a big case even though he is morally certain — but cannot prove — that the informant has murdered one of his agency's clients? The Op resolves his two problems neatly by manipulating events so that the corrupt detective and the informant get into an armed confrontation in which both are killed.

Decades of witnessing human cruelty, misery, and ruin, as well as being instrumental in sending hundreds of people to jail, or to the gallows, have greatly weakened the Op's natural sympathy with his fellow men. He fears becoming like his boss, "The Old Man", whom he describes as "a shell, without any human feelings whatsoever".

In the penultimate chapter of The Dain Curse, a female client, whose life the Op has saved three times, while also curing her of morphine addiction, says to him:

"You came in just now, and then I saw -"
She stopped.
"A monster. A nice one, an especially nice one to have around when you're in trouble, but a monster just the same, without any human foolishness like love in him, and - What's the matter? Have I said something I shouldn't?"

The Op is the first major hardboiled detective later developed in such characters as Hammett's own Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer and others.


The Continental Op made his debut in an October 1923 issue of Black Mask, making him one of the earliest hard-boiled private detective characters to appear in the pulp magazines of the early twentieth century. He appeared in 36 short stories, all but two of which appeared in Black Mask.

In 1927, Hammett began writing linked stories, which formed the basis for his first two novels, Red Harvest and The Dain Curse, both released in 1929. Two other stories, "The Big Knockover" and "$106,000 Blood Money" were published as Blood Money in 1943. Hammett also wrote a two-story sequence in the summer of 1924 consisting of "The House in Turk Street" and "The Girl with the Silver Eyes." These were recently published (along with The Dain Curse, The Glass Key, and Blood Money) in a Modern Library edition, though they are not officially called a novel as was Blood Money.

Of the 28 stories not a part of Red Harvest or The Dain Curse, 26 are available in one of three collections from Vintage Crime, The Big Knockover (1966), The Continental Op (1974), and Nightmare Town (1999), and/or the Library of America collection Crime Stories and Other Writings (2001).

A number of collections of Hammett stories, both books collecting Continental Op stories (The Continental Op, The Return of the Continental Op) and others with miscellaneous Hammett stories, were published as Dell mapbacks. These collections all contained introductory essays by Ellery Queen. A more recent edition contains a short introduction by Columbia professor Steven Marcus.

Complete List of Stories

BK = These stories are collected in The Big Knockover

CO = These stories are collected in The Continental Op

RO = These stories are collected in The Return Of the Continental Op

NT = These stories are collected in Nightmare Town

CS = These stories are collected in Crime Stories and Other Writings

Dramatic adaptations

See also


  1. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis Community Development Project. "Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–". Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Retrieved October 21, 2016.
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