Monday, October 20, 2008

The Whosis Kid by Dashiell Hammett

The Whosis Kid by Dashiell Hammett
Short Story, Copyright 1925
"The Return of the Continential OP"
Dell Mystery #154, Copyright 1945

"The idea in the detective business is to catch crooks, not to put on heroics."

This is definitely the rule that Dashiell Hammett's nameless, portly operative lives by. I honestly can say that I never read a Continental Op story that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy, and I believe they contain some of Hammett’s best writings. All were originally published in Black Mask Magazine between 1923 to 1930, and for seven solid years they became the standard for P.I. pulp stories. Scott D. Parker had a interesting posting on his excellent blog featuring the 1923 story “Bodies Piled Up,” which he found in a 2008 issue of EQMM. My favorite collection of the short stories is this paperback edition that Dell published in 1945. In it contains one of the Op’s best, “The Whosis Kid.”

"For myself, I counted on coming through all in one piece. Few men get killed. Most of those who meet sudden ends get themselves killed. I’ve had twenty years of experience at dodging that."

The Op starts his own case in this one, having seen the Whosis Kid on the San Francisco streets. The Kid is a name from the past, the Op knew of him as a punk criminal out of Boston. Following the Kid, he quickly concludes he’s up to no good. Our patient detective stakes out a few places, does a wonderful tail job and eventually gets involved in a sort of “car-jacking” - where a distraught foreign woman seeking safety, takes refuge through him. The Op convinces her to take him to her apartment where he hopes to find out what connection there is between the woman, the Whosis Kid, and a mysterious French man called Maurois. The Op knows the woman isn’t leveling with him, as he describes it: She was an actress. She was appealing, and pathetic, and anything else you like-including dangerous. Later the woman's “gorilla” man friend shows up and an entertaining fight erupts between him and the Op. Before you know it the French dude arrives packing heat and our detective devises a way to get the Kid to show up. There are plenty of guns in the room and all are pointing at the foreign woman and the Op, but he has all the key players together in one spot and this is where the detective excels. It’s all about stolen jewels with the three crooks trying to cross each other. The Op calmly waits it out, looking for his opportunity to bring the axe down. And Hammett masterfully delivers as usual, with an action filled ending and the woman having a similar fate as Brigid O'Shaughnessy had in The Maltese Falcon.

This one has always been my favorite Continental Op story. We get a bit of a history lesson on the acute detective's past, working in Boston, quitting as a detective to join up for the Great War, and then returning to the agency after the war. We learn he lived in Chicago, Buffalo and then settled in San Francisco. I found this story a fairly violent one for it’s time, the well described fist fight scene between the Op and the woman’s friend is a good example of that. Also there are plenty of guns blasting and the Kid gets pretty handy with his deadly knife. But it’s the way the Op cleverly gets them together and plays for time that makes this story shine. Plus even being a short pudgy fellow, he puts on some moves in the end, jumping around and plugging away with his revolver.

All five stories in this Dell paperback have the detective operating at peak form, and it contains his last case from 1930 called “Death & Company.” It’s a short work with the Operative a lot less active as in the other stories. My guess is that Hammett was winding down on the character, but it’s an excellent who-done–it. In the story the Old Man puts the Op on a kidnapping case and mysteriously the pickup money doesn’t get claimed. Infidelity is at play here and of course a murdered battered body gets stumbled upon. All I'll say is, the final Continental Op appearance is another good one.

The five pulp stories in "The Return of the Continental Op" are:

'The Whosis Kid" (1925)
"The Gutting of Couffignal" (1925)
"Death & Company" (1930)
"One Hour" (1924)
"The Tenth Clue" (1924)


Anonymous said...

Of all the Op's stories, my favorite has to be 'Corkscrew'.
The fish-out-of-water urban Op in Cowboy Country, the great supporting cast with even greater names (the cowboy named Milk River...), and the extraordinarily delicious dialogue make that tale one I return to again and again.

John Hocking

August West said...

John: Can't argue on that pick. Besides have a wonderful title, it's so relevant to the way Hammett shapes the story. Your description of a "fish-out-of-water urban Op" nails it.


Scott D. Parker said...


Reading your review has made me want to find all the Op stories. I'm wondering: is there an omnibus edition of all Op stories somewhere? Every collection on Amazon doesn't seem to bring every Op story together.

BTW, thanks for the name drop.

Saint Mike said...

Does anyone know of a rendition or production of "The Whosis Kid" or "Whoosis" that was played at the Jone Beach or Marine Theater at Zach's Bay on Long Island (NY) in 1953. I have notes of the things my mother did in the summer of 1953 and "Whosis" is written down twice. I thought it was a movie, but I couldn't find it having been produced and then I say that she saw it at Jones Beach. Does anyone know where to find out what production were at the Marine Theater in 1953 or if there was a stage play of "The Whosis Kid" in 1953? Thanks for any help you can give. CWT

Anonymous said...

Superb story. It is among my Op favorites as well, alongside The House in Turk Street and The Main Death.