The Continental Op by Dashiell Hammett (Shane's book 13, 2008)

Between 1923 and 1927, Dashiell Hammett wrote 36 short stories featuring the Continental op, a nameless investigator working for the Continental Detective Agency. In the process he popularised the hardboiled detective genre, an unsentimental take on crime fiction in which tough-talking crooks try to escape sharp-witted detectives, usually with the help or interference of a duplicitous woman. This book contains seven of those stories and forms part of Orion's Crime Masterworks series, along with three other titles I've read this year: The Hollow Man, Roseanna and Rogue Male. Like those, this is a worthwhile read.

Hammett's writing is crisp and descriptive. His knowledge of detective work - he spent six years working for the Pinkerton Detective Agency - lends an air of authenticity that balances out some of the more cliched moments: there are a few too many shoot-outs in dark rooms, for example.

The Continental operative spends much of his time chasing mundane leads - such as tracking luggage at train stations and running down bank cheques - in a way that prefigures the police procedurals that would become popular 30 or more years later.

The highlight of this collection is The Farewell Murder, which reads like a 1920s American take on Sherlock Holmes. As with the other stories in this book, a deft logical hop by the Continental op reveals an answer that was in front of the reader's nose all along.