Back Dashiell Hammett, “Zigzags of Treachery”

Dashiell Hammett (1894–1961)
From Dashiell Hammett: Crime Stories & Other Writings

Hand-colored photographic postcard published in the early 1910s by local wholesaler Richard Behrendt depicting “Terrific Street,” the nickname a century ago for Pacific Street in the Barbary Coast district of San Francisco, looking east from the corner of Kearny Street. “Zigzags of Treachery” includes a paragraph describing the neighborhood in the early 1920s as its multiethnic residents emerge on a typical evening.

Dashiell Hammett was born 126 years ago today, on May 27, 1894.

In stories written in the 1920s, he developed a hard-boiled narrator who was an employee for the Continental Detective Agency and who, many years later, became known to readers simply as the “Continental Op.” Hammett explained early on that he “didn’t deliberately keep him nameless,” but the detective got through the first couple of stories “without needing one, so I suppose I may as well let him run along that way.”

“He’s more or less of a type,” Hammett continued, “the private detective who oftenest is successful: neither the derby-hatted and broad-toed blockhead of one school of fiction, nor the all-knowing, infallible genius of another. I’ve worked with several of him.” The gritty realism of these early stories must have resonated with the editors of Black Mask magazine, who had asked if his characters were based on people he had known during his career at the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. “None of the characters is real in a literal sense,” he responded, “though I doubt it would be possible to build a character without putting into it at least something of someone the writer has known.”

Our latest Story of the Week selection, “Zigzags of Treachery,” features a case in which the Op depends for answers from one of the more enervating chores of true detective work: shadowing. Hammett’s trick is to conjure a page turner out of the tedious task of following suspects through miles and miles of the streets of San Francisco.

Read “Zigzags of Treachery” by Dashiell Hammett

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