Simply, these are seven stories about Hammett's no-name, middle-aging detective who first appeared in the Black Mask -- "long unavailable" (query -- never in book form before?). They do not include the one godson Ross Macdonald considers the best in this series, "Fly Paper." Not so simply, there is a biographical introduction by Steven Marcus which is fine when it sticks to the facts of Hammett's life -- not so fine, even pretentions, when it pursues ethical/metaphysical implications of the real reality behind the lie which then becomes the fiction. The stories, just pinfeathers of the great jeweled bird to come, do not really deserve Marcus' "disambiguation" -- the Op, the durable survivor, just goes about his hired business and underplays his hand before he applies the thumbscrews. Whether in a common badger game or in the disappearance of an English architect on the bottle or the disappearance of "The Whosis Kid" -- he's unhampered by either imagination or fear. They're straightforward episodes of tough men and tawny women in a brutal, avid world where money means more than morals and lives don't count for a cent. In other words -- prefatory to the great works which would initiate a new genre, free it from the fastidious gentility of the British ruling classes (Dorothy Sayers, for example, excludes him from her classic collection), and leave an indestructible imprimatur to be emulated by the best of our best -- Woolrich/Irish, Cain, Chandler and of course Macdonald.