Where did we first hear the voice of the world-weary American tough guy in its purest distillation? In Dashiell Hammett, a former Pinkerton detective, and in this book, his first novel. Though less famous than The Maltese Falcon or The Thin Man, which both have the advantage of their pitch-perfect movie adaptations, this tale of omnidirectional treachery is the man at his deadly best. (For the record, there is a movie of this book, too. Transferred to samurai-era Japan, it was the basis for Kurosawa’s great film Yojimbo.) With the Continental Op, a detective he had been developing for years in short stories, Hammett created the prototype for every sleuth who would ever be called “hard-boiled.” And with his witty, economical prose—”I said: ‘Hello.’ “—Hammett gave machismo its own terse lyricism. Here the Op finds himself in a corrupt western town where there’s a power struggle among contending factions. Virtually all of them, the hoods, the lawmen, the lowlifes, the local grandees, are lying and corrupt. Short, overweight, often a little drunk, the Op is no movie star. He’s a hero all the same, a man on his own, maneuvering among the crocodiles, frequently with fists and firepower, always with a brutal and amusing efficiency.
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