There are two distinct genres in detective fiction — not exhaustive, nor watertight, but they serve as good markers to the progress of detective/mystery stories. They are the Country House Mystery, and the Hardboiled Mystery.
The Country House mystery (also called the Manor House Mystery, or the cozy mystery) is characterised by an eschewal of too much blood and gore. Sure, there would be a murder, or a theft. But they will be done with some level of élan — it wouldn’t be something too plebian, if I may. There will be a close group of suspects, and the least suspicious of them will eventually be apprehended for the crime by a genius detective. You know the type — Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey.
I absolutely love the cozy mystery. And I would love to tell you more about this specific genre when we meet here again. And really, how can a detective fiction aficionado not like Poirot, at least a little bit?
But today, let me tell you about hardboiled mysteries, and about Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op, perhaps the most hardboiled of all hardboiled protagonists.
Hardboiled is ‘human condition’ writing — the mystery is important, but more important is the ambience and the scene. It exchanges the prim and proper English manor house for the dust and the grime of America’s seedy underbelly. Gone is the bumbling assistant — the leading man is a lone wolf. World-weary, sarcastic, even downright anti-establishment at times, the only thing keeping him on our right side is his irreconcilably strict moral compass.
Dashiell Hammett was one of the first hardboiled writers who became mainstream. Haven’t you heard of Sam Spade? Played by the impossibly suave Humphrey Bogart, chasing the Maltese Falcon, of course you have heard of Sam Spade.
But the Continental Op is no Sam Spade. The man-with-no-name works for the Continental Detective Agency. He does not have much natural sympathy for people — it’s not a pretty place, this world — he has a job to do, and he does it. He does it very well. He is brutal, he uses force, he manipulates, he bribes and he threatens. But he gets the job done. And then couriers the cheque to the Continental’s San Francisco office, and writes a report to his boss.
And if that does not sound interesting enough, the failing is completely mine. The Continental Op is my second favourite protagonist in detective fiction. He is everyman, and he talks about everyday lives led in hard towns by hard men and women. He isn’t pretty, and he isn’t there for the niceties. He is there for the chase.
If I could choose any fictional detective to solve a case for me, I would hire the Continental Op. Recommended first reading: Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett.
(The writer is Financial Architect in Bangalore, whose short stories have been published in magazines in India and Singapore)