Hammett, Dashiell

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Dashiell Hammett


Born May 27, 1894, in St. Mary, MD; died of lung cancer, January 10, 1961; son of Richard Thomas (a farmer and politician) and Annie (Bond) Hammett; married Josephine Dolan, July 6, 1921 (separated, 1927; divorced, 1937); children: Mary Jane, Josephine. Education: Attended Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. Politics: Marxist.


Writer. Worked as freight clerk, stevedore, time-keeper, yardman, and railroad worker; private detective with Pinkerton National Detective Agency, c. 1914-l8 and 1919-21; Albert S. Samuels Jewelers, San Francisco, CA, advertising copywriter, 1922-27; worked sporadically as screenwriter for various motion picture studios from 1930 until after World War II. Active in various left-wing organizations, beginning 1937; member of Civil Rights Congress, New York state president, 1946, national vice-chair, 1948, New York state chair, 1951; convicted and imprisoned for contempt of Congress, 1951. Jefferson School of Social Sciences, faculty member, 1946-47 and 1949-56, member of board of trustees, 1948. Military service: U.S. Army Ambulance Corps, 1918-19, became sergeant; U.S. Army Signal Corps, 1942-45, became sergeant.



Red Harvest (serialized in Black Mask, 1927), Knopf (New York, NY), 1929, J. Curley (South Yarmouth, MA), 1983.

The Dain Curse (based on Hammett's short story "The Scorched Face"), Knopf (New York, NY), 1929, J. Curley (South Yarmouth, MA), 1983.

The Maltese Falcon, Knopf (New York, NY), 1930, North Point Press (New York, NY), 1984.

The Glass Key, Knopf (New York, NY), 1931, Vintage Books (New York, NY), 1972.

The Thin Man, Knopf (New York, NY), 1934, Vintage Books (New York, NY), 1972.

Dashiell Hammett Omnibus: "Red Harvest," "The Dain Curse," "The Maltese Falcon," Knopf (New York, NY), 1935.

The Complete Dashiell Hammett (contains The Thin Man, The Glass Key, The Maltese Falcon, and Red Harvest), Knopf (New York, NY), 1942.

Novels (contains Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, and The Thin Man), Knopf (New York, NY), 1965, published as Dashiell Hammett: Five Complete Novels, Outlet Book Co. (New York, NY), 1991.

Dashiell Hammett: Complete Novels (contains Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, and The Thin Man), edited by Steven Marcus, Library of America (New York, NY), 1999.


$106,000 Blood Money, Spivak (Concord, NH), 1943, published as Blood Money, Dell (New York, NY), 1944, and as The Big Knockover, Jonathan Press (New York, NY), 1948.

The Adventures of Sam Spade, Spivak (Concord, NH), 1944, published as They Can Only Hang You Once, Spivak (Concord, NH), 1949.

The Continental Op, Spivak (Concord, NH), 1945, Franklin Library (New York, NY), 1984.

A Man Called Spade, Dell (New York, NY), 1945.

The Return of the Continental Op, Spivak (Concord, NH), 1945.

Hammett Homicides, Spivak (Concord, NH), 1946.

Dead Yellow Women, Spivak (Concord, NH), 1947.

Nightmare Town, Spivak (Concord, NH), 1948.

Creeping Siamese, Spivak (Concord, NH), 1950.

Woman in the Dark, Spivak (Concord, NH), 1951, Random House (New York, NY), 1989.

A Man Named Thin, Ferman (New York, NY), 1962.

The Big Knockover, edited by Lillian Hellman, Random House (New York, NY), 1966, published in England as The Dashiell Hammett Story Omnibus, Cassell (London, England), 1966.

The Continental Op: More Stories from "The Big Knock-over," Dell (New York, NY), 1967.

The Continental Op (different from two collections above with same title), edited by Steven Marcus, Random House (New York, NY), 1974.

Dashiell Hammett's Secret Agent, Movie Publisher Services (Las Vegas, NV), 1990.

Dashiell Hammett: Crimes Stories and Other Writings, selected by Steven Marcus, Library of America (New York, NY), 2001.

Works represented in numerous anthologies of detective fiction. Contributor of stories and articles to more than thirty magazines, including Black Mask, Smart Set, Brief Stories, True Detective Stories, Argosy All-Story Monthly, Saturday Review of Literature, Bookman, American Magazine, Collier's, Liberty, Redbook, and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.


(Editor) Creeps by Night (short stories), John Day (New York, NY), 1931, published in England as Modern Tales of Horror, Gollancz (London, England), 1932; selections published in England as The Red Brain and Other Thrillers, Belmont, 1961, and as Breakdown and Other Thrillers, New English Library (London, England), 1968.

Secret Agent X-9 (comic strip), McKay (New York, NY), 1934, International Polygonics (New York, NY), 1983.

Watch on the Rhine (screenplay; adapted from the play by Lillian Hellman), Warner Bros. (New York, NY), 1943.

The Battle of the Aleutians (history), U.S. Army (Adak, AK), 1944.

Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett, edited by Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett, introduction by Josephine Hammett Marshall, Counterpoint (New York, NY), 2001.


The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man, Woman in the Dark, and The Glass Key were adapted for films in the 1930s and 1940s; the short story, "The House on Turk Street," was adapted for a film of the same name, by Seven Arts, 2002.


"I'm one of the few—if there are any more—people moderately literate who take the detective story seriously," Dashiell Hammett wrote to his publisher in 1928 at the beginning of his novel-writing career. "I don't mean that I necessarily take my own or anybody else's seriously—but the detective story as a form. Some day somebody's going to make 'literature' out of it . . . and I'm selfish enough to have my hopes." In fact, Hammett did just that; he made real literature out of crime fiction by removing it from the drawing room where British and other mystery writers had cosseted it since the time of Edgar Allan Poe and giving it a realistic edge with hard-hitting action and slangy dialogue. His novels, Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, The Glass Key, The Maltese Falcon, and The Thin Man, were bestsellers when published in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and have remained in print ever since. According to novelist Margaret Atwood, writing in the New York Review of Books, The Maltese Falcon is "perhaps the best-known American crime novel of all time." Critic Richard Layman, a specialist on Hammett, elevated that novel and The Glass Key out of mere bestseller lists. In an interview with Michael Rogers for Library Journal, Layman declared that those two novels "meet the highest standards ofAmerican literature." Widely considered the father of hard-boiled detective fiction, Hammett is also more than a crime writer, according to many critics, including Layman. "Hammett transcended the boundaries of detective fiction in his best work and displayed a stunning talent," Layman further explained to Rogers.

Along with those of Caroll John Daley, Hammett's stories in Black Mask magazine helped to bring about a major movement in detective fiction away from the genteel detectives solving crimes perpetrated by masterminds, to rough, believable private eyes dealing with common crooks. In the words of mystery writer Raymond Chandler, "Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley. . . . [He] gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish." As Atwood went on to note, the world of Hammett's novels appealed to her as a young reader because it was "fast-paced, sharp-edged, and filled with zippy dialogue and words I'd never heard pronounced. . . . This was not the Agatha Christie sort of story. . . . In a 'clues' novel, every thing depended on who was where; in a Hammett one, it was more likely to be who was who." This reliance on character is the single most important trait in a Hammett novel, and the one that bootstraps his novels out of genre. His works went on to influence new generations not only of mystery writers, such as Chandler, Ross McDonald, and Elmore Leonard, but also mainstream fiction, challenging the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, who were writing at the same time as Hammett.

Hammett's importance as a writer lies in his influence as an innovator, his impact as a stylist, and his skill in characterization. In 1948, Raymond Chandler wrote in a letter to fellow crime fiction writer Cleve F. Adams: "I did not invent the hard boiled murder story and I have never made any secret of my opinion that Hammett deserves most or all of the credit." Along with Chandler, Hammett is the most imitated writer of the genre. Erle Stanley Gardner declared: "I think of all the early pulp writers who contributed to the new format of the detective story, the word 'genius' was more nearly applicable to Hammett than to any of the rest. Unfortunately, however, because Hammett's manner was so widely imitated it became the habit for the reviewers to refer to 'the Hammett School' as embracing the type of story as well as the style."

Hammett was important as more than simply a genre writer. As Howard Haycraft observed in his Murder for Pleasure, Hammett's novels "are also

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character studies of close to top rank in their own right, and are penetrating if often shocking as novels of manners as well. They established new standards for realism in the genre. Yet they are as sharply stylized and deliberately artificial as Restoration Comedy, and have been called an inverted form of romanticism."

In one sense Hammett's detectives are romantics. They dare to believe in and hold firmly to a strict code of behavior, which is in opposition to that of the world in which they move. Realistic and resourceful enough to be able to operate effectively among thieves, murderers, kidnappers, and blackmailers, Hammett's Continental Op, Sam Spade, Ned Beaumont, and Nick Charles are incorruptible in their belief that criminals ought to pay for their acts. When the unnamed Continental Op is tempted with money and sex to let a Russian princess guilty of murder and theft go free, he explains: "You think I'm a man and you're a woman. That's wrong. I'm a manhunter and you're something that's been running in front of me. There's nothing human about it. You might just as well expect a hound to play tiddly-winks with the fox he's caught." That sentiment presages the famous farewell of Sam Spade to Brigid O'Shaughnessy, the murderess he loves but turns over to the police: "I'm going to send you over. The chances are you'll get off with life. That means you'll be out again in twenty years. You're an angel. I'll wait for you. . . . If they hang you I'll always remember you." Ellery Queen noticed the seeming paradox of Hammett's romanticism early on: "The skin of realism hides the inner body of romance. All you see at first glance is that tough outer skin. But inside—deep in the core of his plots and counterplots—Hammett is one of the purest and most uninhibited romantics of all." And as with all romantics, there is a touch of mystery to his life. What was there to prompt this successful man of letters to give up writing in 1934 at the height of his career after only five novels?

In the American Grain

William Marling, writing in his critical study Dashiell Hammett, supplied what he felt was the most cogent solution to the mystery of Hammett: "Hammett had been, and would always be a child of the streets. Money in the hand was money spent. When he was flush his generosity with money, time, and advice were unstaunchable. But the streets also taught that nothing was permanent: Hammett had a deep-seated mistrust of accumulation, and the most creative part of his life is a chronicle of personal and financial irresponsibility. The only place in which he could reconcile the duty and the distrust was fiction, where he invented a creed of uncommon power for the common man." Born Samuel Dashiell Hammett on May 27, 1894, he was the son of Richard and Annie Bond Hammett, and the second of three children. Hammett's first six years were spent on his paternal grandfather's rundown farm near Baltimore, Maryland, in a rather chaotic household. The grandfather had, after the death of his wife, married a twenty-three-year-old woman and fathered three more children by the time his son Richard brought his wife and three grandchildren—including Dashiell—into the home. Cats and dogs abounded, as did Hammett cousins of all ages who dropped in. Farming was secondary to drinking in the Hammett household, and the father, while claiming to be a farmer, really had little ambition. He worked variously as a postmaster and justice of the peace—a position gained through family influence. But whiskey and fighting were more to his liking. Hammett's mother, Annie, who saw herself as near royalty for her French military ancestors, found the rustic life sordid and withdrew, suffering also from tuberculosis. Her son followed suit in both. The family moved to Philadelphia in 1900 and then to Baltimore the next year, where Richard Hammett attempted to function variously as a salesman, a streetcar conductor, and then a clerk.

Hammett attended public school in Baltimore, and had few friends; even he and his younger brother were more competitors than pals. Soon he discovered the public library and began bringing home loads of books that he read late into the night. His reading began with adventures and mysteries, and soon expanded to all manner of topics to fill his curious mind—a habit that was to stay with him the rest of his life. Such reading helped gain him admittance to the prestigious Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in 1908, where he specially excelled in history. However, before the end of his first year, his father became seriously ill and Hammett had to drop out to find employment and help support his family. Thus, Hammett's formal education ended when he was only fifteen; the next years would supply a different sort of education on the streets.

From 1909 to 1914, Hammett drifted from job to job, working in unskilled occupations such as freight clerk, stevedore, timekeeper, yardman, railroad worker, and day laborer, and rubbing shoulders with all manner of people. Still a teenager, he was no stranger to local saloons; his choice in women tended toward the loose at this time in his life. One day Hammett, always on the lookout for a new job, answered a newspaper ad for detectives wanted at the local office of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. The job fitted him well with its irregular hours, the need for personal initiative and cleverness, the occasional visceral jolt of a chase, and certain prestige socially. He stuck with it, except for a year in the military, from 1914 to 1921. Trained by the assistant manager of the Baltimore office, James Wright, Hammett was generally considered effective in his chosen career, and often ranked near the top of his group of fellow detectives. "Wright had an ethos, or professionalism, about his job that was a combination of insight, self-protection, agency policy, and survivor morality," according to Marling. "Hammett adopted this approach, seeing that it permitted the detective to do his work well with as little emotional and physical risk as possible." Wright later became Hammett's model for the hardboiled anonymous detective in the Continental Op short stories, and later still for Hammett's legendary private eye, Sam Spade. On the job, Hammett searched for accused securities thief Nick Arnstein; he worked for the defense during Fatty Arbuckle's celebrated trial for rape and murder; and he once found $125,000 in stolen gold stuffed down the smoke stack of a ship about to embark for Australia.

Drafted in 1918, Hammett trained near Baltimore as an ambulance driver, but never left the states. Instead, he fought the first rounds of a losing battle with health, hospitalized by the army for bronchitis and then tuberculosis, which it was determined he contracted while in the service. Discharged on disability in 1919, he was unable to go back to his old job with the Pinkertons in Baltimore, and was confined to bed for a year, too sick to move about. In 1920, after saving up his disability checks from the government, he headed west, to Spokane, Washington, where he again found employment with the Pinkerton Agency, working throughout the West on

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cases from divorce to robbery to union busting. In late 1920, he was hospitalized at the Cushman Hospital in Tacoma, Washington, suffering again from tuberculosis. He remained hospitalized for six months, later sent to another facility near San Diego, California, to get to a drier climate. Released from hospital, Hammett moved up the coast to San Francisco and resumed work for a time with the Pinkerton agency in that city. Hammett relished the rough and tumble aspects of this port city during the years of prohibition, and it was during this final stage of his detective career that he worked on the famous Arbuckle case.

While at the hospital in Washington state, Hammett began a relationship with a nurse, Josephine Cushman. When he learned she was pregnant with their child, he married her. His first daughter was born in 1921, and the second one in 1926. However, as a result of his bouts with tuberculosis, Hammett was forced to give up detective work and search for a more sedate occupation. He studied journalism at a business college and was able to partly support his family with the disability checks he received. Instead of journalism, though, he opted for advertising, and between 1922 and 1927 he earned his living primarily from copy writing in San Francisco. In 1922, he also began writing about the characters and the life he had been forced to abandon. Hammett remarked in 1929: "The 'op' I use . . . is the typical sort of private detective that exists in our country today. I've worked with half a dozen men who might be he with a few changes."

Sets Out with Short Stories

Hammett's first short story, "The Parthian Shot," was published in Smart Set, a serious literary magazine of the time, founded by George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken. Other articles and stories were placed in a variety of publications, but as Charles Brower noted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Hammett "had his most promising success when he utilized his experience as a detective," as in another article for Smart Set, "From the Memoirs of a Private Detective." However, according to Brower, "Hammett found his greatest success in another magazine founded by Mencken and Nathan, Black Mask." Here he published in 1923 "Arson Plus," the first of a series of stories featuring an anonymous detective working for the Continental Detective Agency, who became known as the Continental Op. The magazine was the most important forum for writers of the hard-boiled school, and Hammett quickly became the most popular of the Black Mask writers with the magazine's readership. Between 1923 and 1927, thirty-two of his stories were published there, twenty-six of which feature the Continental Op. As Brower further noted, "The Op has few of the exaggerated qualities possessed by the heroes usually featured in pulp fiction. He is short and thick with middle age. He has years of experience and a native toughness and resourcefulness. . . . The Op is all professional. . . . Each Op story begins with his investigation of a case and ends when that investigation is resolved." Among these stories are "Zigzags of Treachery," "The Girl with the Silver Eyes," "The House in Turk Street," "The Gutting of Couffignal," "The Scorched Face," "Corkscrew," and "Dead Yellow Women." According to Brower, Hammett "used some of his stories to rehearse the themes, situations, and characterizations that he later used in his novels."

These stories also schooled Hammett in the fundamentals of writing character, dialogue, setting, and plot. As Brower stated, Hammett "became adept at using flat understatement" in these apprentice pieces. He also played with tone and style, employing an impressionistic style in stories such as "The Scorched Face," or used extensive violence and fast-paced action, found in the longest of his short stories, the connected tales, "The Big Knockover" and "$106,000 Blood Money." Taken together, more than a score of characters are killed in this duo of linked stories. Additionally, "the main female characters in the stories, Big Flora and Nancy Regan, anticipate women that appear in the novels," according to Brower, and "the Op's speech shows that Hammett was already considering the issues of loyalty and betrayal that dominate his best novels." Atwood reported that the stories "give us a good look at the young Hammett staking out his territory." Atwood further thought that "despite their adherence to formulas it's easy to see why Hammett rose so rapidly . . . Low life and high life are his interests: each set is motivated largely by money, power, and sex, and each behaves badly." Furthermore, Atwood, like other critics, noted that Hammett's short stories were realistic "only in their settings and details . . . and in their forthright use of the vernacular." Atwood characterized the plots as "Jacobean in their doubled and redoubled vengeance." Such stories, according to Atwood, are not examples of realism; rather they are "romances . . . with knights-errant disguised as detectives, and treasures with criminal mastermind ogres guarding them." Writing in the New Yorker, Claudia Roth Pierpoint noted that many of Hammett's stories were "executed beneath the level of his engaged attention," written in haste for badly needed funds. However, he also "produced whiz-bang tales that exhibit the best of what the pulps could offer, and few that transcend formula in the strict music of Hammett's uniquely deadpan dialogue, or in the verbal loop-the-loop of [certain] lines." For Pierpoint, the "most extraordinary aspect of these stories is their long and echoing influence: in the pulps Hammett developed not just a literary style but the style of an era."

The Novelist

Black Mask editors took their work and their writers seriously; they demanded quality material and freely suggested new avenues for their writers' work. In 1926, Captain Joseph T. Shaw became editor of Black Mask and encouraged Hammett to write longer fiction. As a result, in November 1927 the first installment of the four-part Red Harvest, Hammett's first novel, was published in Black Mask. The opening lines of Red Harvest illustrate well the major elements of Hammett's style: "I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called a shirt a shoit. I didn't think anything of what he had done to the city's name. Later I heard men who could manage their r's to give it the same pronunciation." Careful attention to vernacular speech, use of criminal argot, and a knowledgeable, objective point of view characterize Hammett's fiction.

In Red Harvest the unnamed Continental Op tells the story of one of his cases. Typically, he goes into Personville, a totally lawless community, and by manipulating one group of criminals against another causes them to kill each other off. William F. Nolan, in his Dashiell Hammett: A Casebook, pointed out that by the end of the novel "more than thirty deaths are toted up, a total which includes twelve of the nineteen main characters." During the course of the novel, the op breaks some laws, tells some lies, betrays some confidences, but he does so in a criminal environment where, he is realist enough to know, an honest man wouldn't stand a chance.

Red Harvest was a critical success. Herbert Asbury in Bookman declared: "It is doubtful if even Ernest Hemingway has ever written more effective dialogue than may be found within the pages of this extraordinary tale of gunmen, gin and gangsters. The author displays a style of amazing clarity and compactness, devoid of literary frills and furbelows, and his characters, who race through the story with the rapidity and destructiveness of machine guns, speak the crisp hard-boiled language of the underworld." W. R. Brooks in Outlook echoed those remarks: "It is written by a man who plainly knows his underworld and can make it come alive for his readers." Brower further noted that this first novel "is the most elaborately plotted" of any of Hammett's novels. As distinguished a writer as the French novelist Andre Gide added his praise in the New Republic, noting that "every character is trying to deceive all the others and . . . the truth slowly becomes visible through a fog of deception."

Those comments are typical, and they forecast the success Hammett would achieve upon the publication in 1930 of his third novel, The Maltese Falcon. The Dain Curse, however, published in 1929, was not up to Hammett's standards. Though it received a share of reviewers' compliments, many contemporary readers agree with William Nolan's description: "Lacking the cohesive element of a single locale, this story jumps from seacoast to city to country, while the reader is forced to cope with over thirty characters." Based on Hammett's short story "The Scorched Face," The Dain Curse is the story of a family curse caused by incest which links the op's client's daughter with her blackly religious captor. The story concerns drugs and, most of all, murder in a gothic setting. It was reported that Hammett himself considered The Dain Curse a silly story and less than his best work.

If The Dain Curse is Hammett's least successful novel, The Maltese Falcon ranks with his very best. The novel brought Hammett instant fame and prosperity. Sam Spade, the novel's protagonist, has served as a standard of hard-boiled characterization. Tough, calloused, competent, and operating according to his own code of justice, Sam Spade is the epitome of the lone detective working without reward to make things right. More restrained than earlier works, the novel involves the search for a priceless gold stature of a falcon that dates back to the Knights of Malta. Searching for it, both Spade's partner and the man he was tailing are murdered. Suspicion falls on Spade for at least one of these deaths, for he has been having an affair with his partner's wife. When Spade is accused of murder by an incompetent district attorney, the private eye explains his position: "As far as I can see my best chance of clearing myself of the trouble you're trying to make for me is by bringing in the murderers—all tied up. And my only chance of ever catching them is by keeping away from you and the police, because neither of you show any signs of knowing what in hell it's all about." Thereafter, Spade must cut through layers of intrigue to discover the real truth about the search for the gold falcon. Spade perhaps best illustrates the emotional callousness characteristic of Hammett's detectives. Somerset Maugham complained that Spade was hardly distinguishable from the crooks he chased. That observation is critical to an understanding of Spade and his work. As Spade tells Brigid O'Shaughnessy, the woman who employed him in the first place: "Don't be too sure I'm as crooked as I'm supposed to be. That kind of reputation might be good business . . . making it easier to deal with the enemy." Good men can't deal with bad ones because being good, they obey a different set of rules. Spade deals with the enemy on his own terms.

In 1930, W. R. Brooks wrote in Outlook that The Maltese Falcon "is not only probably the best detective story we have ever read, it is an exceedingly well written novel." Filmed three times, the novel has become synonymous with Hammett's name and reputation. Brooks's opinion has worn well for more than seventy years. The Maltese Falcon is widely considered a standard by which American mysteries are judged. Writing in Library Journal in 2003, Michael Rogers observed that the novel "elevated the hard-boiled detective genre from the dregs of the penny dreadful to the lofty ranks of literature." According to Brower, The Maltese Falcon "is famous for its objective, as opposed to omniscient, point of view; the reader follows Spade throughout but is not privy to his motives. Hammett perfects this technique of isolating salient details to reveal inner states." Brower also noted of this novel that it "makes effective use of the San Francisco setting."

Before publication of Maltese Falcon, Hammett had left his wife and daughters to move to New York and oversee the production of the book. The separation began in 1927, supposedly to safeguard his family from catching tuberculosis; however, he began a series of affairs in San Francisco, and moved to New York with writer Nell Martin, with whom he lived for a time. With the success of The Maltese Falcon, Hammett was recruited by Hollywood, where he worked on the screenplay for the 1931 movie City Streets. While there he met a young script reader for M-G-M studios, Lillian Hellman, who was married at the time to the well-known writer Arthur Kober. But for Hellman at least, it was proverbial love at first sight when she saw Hammett at a Bing Crosby opening at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. She managed to meet him that night; in a matter of months they were having an affair; and in 1932 she divorced her husband and for the next three decades the two stayed together in a stormy relationship often written about. Hammett did not divorce his first wife until 1937.

Hammett was also busy with his fourth novel. Hammett is said to have liked The Glass Key best among his novels. It has been suggested that Ned Beaumont, the protagonist of The Glass Key, is closer to the character of the author than some of Hammett's brassier, hardboiled detectives. Beaumont is tubercular, a gambler, a man with an intense sense of loyalty to his friend, yet a man who lives by a private code. Like Sam Spade, he is not impervious to human relationships, but he will not allow his personal feelings to blind him to the truth. When a U.S. senator, father of the woman Beaumont respects, if not loves, is proven to have murdered his son, he asks Beaumont for "the return of my revolver and five minutes—a minute—alone in this room" so that he may take the honorable way out. Beaumont's reply has the force of unrefined justice about it: "You'll take what's coming to you."

As Hammett's plots became less complex, his characters more realistic, his writing more mature, the heroes of his fiction continued to see that people got what they deserved. The Glass Key is a novel about justice, friendship, and priorities. Ned Beaumont's friend Paul Madvig is a political boss who very nearly lets his attraction to Senator Ralph B. Henry's daughter, Janet, ruin him. Beaumont serves his friend well by saving him, against Madvig's will, from a murder charge by exposing Senator Henry as his son's murderer and by saving Madvig from Janet Henry, who "hates him like poison." Madvig is unwilling to face the truth and Beaumont is too good a friend to allow him not to. Beaumont serves to make people accept reality—whether it be to take what's coming to them or to give up what they have no claim to having.

M. I. Cole, writing in Spectator, called The Glass Key "the work of a man who knows exactly what he means to do, and who knows, also, why the current tradition of English detective fiction cannot be translated into American. . . . His people are violent, grafty, and full of sex appeal and responsiveness thereto: he is a clever writer." However, other contemporary reviewers generally found that this fourth novel did not quite match up to The Maltese Falcon.

After The Glass Key, it was three years before Hammett's next and last novel, The Thin Man, was written. Five years earlier he had literally been a starving writer. In 1931, his income was estimated at over $50,000; it would soon double. He rode in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce (he was said to have refused to drive after he dumped an ambulance load of wounded soldiers during World War I) and tipped his barber with twenty-dollar bills. He had become a celebrity—and he had met perhaps the most influential woman in his life who was to be his companion until his death, Lillian Hellman.

While The Maltese Falcon was shocking to the readers of its day because it featured a homosexual villain, one line in The Thin Man which referred to a man's sexual arousal while wrestling with a young girl created such a furor that the publisher felt obligedtorunanadinthe New York Times Book Review defending the book's popularity: "Twenty thousand people don't buy a book within three weeks to read a five-word question." The sex in Hammett's work is very mild by today's standards; what is more interesting about The Thin Man is the change of tone and the change in the character of the detective. Nick Charles hates his work. A former detective, he has married a rich woman and wants to enjoy liquor and leisure. In many ways Hammett was, in 1934, much like Nick Charles. He was wealthy, an alcoholic, and his interest in his work was waning. Nora Charles, the detective's wife and cohort, was inspired by Hellman. Curiously The Thin Man, a light mystery with a self-indulgent hero, was Hammett's bestselling and most lucrative book. The movie starring William Powell and Myrna Loy was so successful that five sequels were made. Hammett no longer had to write to survive.

Hammett wrote The Thin Man at a hotel run by writer Nathanael West. Lillian Hellman recalled the process: "I had known Dash when he was writing short stories, but I had never been around for a long piece of work. Life changed: the drinking stopped; the parties were over. The locking-in time had come and nothing was allowed to disturb it until the book was finished. I had never seen anyone work that way: the care for every word, the pride in the neatness of the typed page itself, the refusal for ten days or two weeks to go out even for a walk for fear something would be lost." Later, in a letter to Hellman, Hammett wrote: "Maybe there are better writers in the world, but nobody ever invented a more insufferably smug pair of characters. They can't take that away from me, even for $40,000." The $40,000 referred to the money he made from one of the Thin Man sequels.

Life after Novels: A Shift to the Left

After 1934, movies played an important part in Hammett's life. F. Scott Fitzgerald called Hammett one of the good writers "ruined" by Hollywood. Raymond Chandler concurred: "He was one of the many guys who couldn't take Hollywood without trying to push God out of the high seat."

Whatever the reason, Hammett stopped publishing after The Thin Man. All of the books that appeared under his name after 1934 are collections of stories written earlier. The extent of his literary activities appears to have been as a screenwriter—including the only screenplay for which he was credited, the adaptation of Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine—a script doctor for stage plays, consultant for radio scripts, and occasional book reviewer. He did attempt a novel, but returned the advance he had accepted from Random House when it became clear that the novel would never be completed (the unfinished novel, Tulip, appears in The Big Knockover). William Nolan suggested that one clue to Hammett's silence lies in the words of Pop, Tulip's Hammett-like narrator: "If you are tired you ought to rest, I think, and not try to fool yourself and your customers with colored bubbles." Hammett's daughter, Jo Hammett observed in her biography, Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers, that her father actually did not stop writing. "Not until the very last. What he stopped was finishing." Others have put Hammett's silence down to alcoholic abuse, his illness, or the fact that he had said what he had to say by 1934 and that his style was becoming redundant—too many imitators existed and the language had changed. As Atwood wrote, "[Hammett] couldn't go to town on the language anymore because that kind of town no longer existed."

Though Hammett's writing career effectively ended in 1934, he remained a nationally prominent man until his death. About 1937, Hammett apparently joined the Communist party and he figured in Communist party affairs for the next twenty years. As Pierpoint noted, "Hellman, a famously indefatigable supporter of the Soviet state, has often taken the blame (or, occasionally, the credit) for Hammett's political conversion, and certainly the man whose original line of work involved union busting hardly seems to have been a natural fellow-traveller." Pierpoint, however, credits Hammett's conversion to the Left as a result of the Spanish Civil War and the reaction of other artists and liberals, such as Hemingway, to that event. At the height of the paranoia which accompanied McCarthyism, the FBI reported that Hammett was a sponsor, member, or supporter of over forty organizations sympathetic to communism; in 1948 he served as national vice-chair of the Civil Rights Congress (CRC), declared by the U.S. Attorney General to be a subversive organization. Lillian Hellman faced squarely the subject of Hammett's politics: "I don't know if Hammett was a Communist Party member: most certainly he was a Marxist. But he was a very critical Marxist, often contemptuous of the Soviet Union in the same hick sense that many Americans are contemptuous of foreigners. He was often witty and bitingly sharp about the American Communist Party, but he was, in the end, loyal to them." On February 23, 1955, testifying before the joint legislative committee Investigation of Charitable and Philanthropic Agencies and Organizations at the Supreme Court-New York City, Hammett stated: "Communism to me is

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not a dirty word. When you are working for the advance of mankind it never occurs to you whether a guy is a Communist."

In 1951, Hammett was called to testify before the New York State Supreme Court as a trustee of the Bail Bond Committee of CRC in the wake of the violation of bail by eleven members of the Communist Party for whom the CRC had posted bond, four of whom could not be located. When Hammett refused to testify—even to identify his signature—he was sentenced to six months in federal prison for contempt of court. He served his term between July and December of 1951.

In April of 1953, Hammett was called to testify before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations, chaired by Joseph McCarthy. His testimony before that committee is often quoted. Asked by McCarthy if he would "purchase the works of some seventy-five Communist authors and distribute their works throughout the world," Hammett replied, "If I were fighting communism, I don't think I would do it by giving people any books at all."

Royalties from Hammett's work supported him well into the 1950s. Before he was jailed, Hammett still earned $1,000 per week from royalties. But after his release, the Internal Revenue Service took an increasing interest in his affairs, resulting in a $140,796 default judgment for tax deficiencies in February 1957. Tubercular and physically exhausted, Hammett was unable to pay the judgment and his income was attached for the rest of his life. In 1957, he listed his income as less than $30. In November 1960 he was found to have lung cancer. He died on January 10, 1961. At his funeral Lillian Hellman said of Dashiell Hammett: "He never lied, he never faked, he never stooped. He seemed to me a great man."

If you enjoy the works of Dashiell Hammett

If you enjoy the works of Dashiell Hammett, you might want to check out the following books:

James M. Cain, Mildred Pierce, 1941.

Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep, 1939.

Cornell Woolrich, Rendezvous in Black, 1941.

Since his death, Hammett's reputation has increased, his influence over new generations of writers has spread more widely. "In the pantheon of mystery and detective writers, Hammett's place is near the head," wrote Marling. "Among American practitioners, only Edgar Allan Poe stands before him and only Raymond Chandler stands beside him. Hammett cleared the way for a generation of writers that included Macdonald, Spillane, Simeon, Le Carre, and the spy novelists, because he introduced into an effete, prescribed genre the vigor of the street, the tension of contemporary problems." Pierpoint concluded, "In a few short years Hammett turned out a few short books that have yielded a chorus of voices and a phantasmagoria of beloved images . . . before the gift just went, like a fist when you open your hand." A contributor for Publishers Weekly, reviewing a 2001 collection of Hammett's short works published by the prestigious Library of America, declared that this "first great author in the hard-boiled detective genre . . . remains one of the most entertaining."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Authors in the News, Volume 1, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1976.

Bruccoli, Matthew J., and Richard Layman, editors, Hardboiled Mystery Writers: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald: A Literary Reference, Carroll and Graf (New York, NY), 2002.

Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography: The Twenties, 1917-1929, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1989.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 3, 1975; Volume 5, 1976; Volume 10, 1979; Volume 19, 1981; Volume 47, 1988.

Deloux, Jean-Pierre, Dashiell Hammett, Underworld USA, Editions du Rocher (Monaco), 1994.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 26: American Hard-Boiled Crime Writers, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000, pp. 188-208.

Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Volume 6, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1989.

Gardiner, Dorothy, and Katherine Sorley Walker, editors, Raymond Chandler Speaking, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1962.

Gores, Joe, Hammett, Putnam (New York, NY), 1975.

Hammett, Dashiell, The Maltese Falcon, Knopf (New York, NY), 1930.

Hammett, Dashiell, The Glass Key, Knopf (New York, NY), 1931.

Hammett, Dashiell, The Continental Op, Spivak (Concord, NH), 1945.

Hammett, Dashiell, They Can Only Hang You Once, Spivak (Concord, NH), 1949.

Hammett, Jo, Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers, Carroll and Graf (New York, NY), 2001.

Haycraft, Howard, Murder for Pleasure, Appleton-Century (New York, NY), 1941.

Haycraft, Howard, editor, The Art of the Mystery Story, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1946.

Hellman, Lillian, An Unfinished Woman, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1969.

Hellman, Lillian, Pentimento, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1973.

Hellman, Lillian, Scoundrel Time, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1976.

Johnson, Diane, Dashiell Hammett: A Life, Random House (New York, NY), 1984.

Layman, Richard, Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett, Bruccoli-Clark Layman (New York, NY), 1981,

Layman, Richard, and Julie M. Rivett, editors, Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett, Counterpoint (New York, NY), 2001.

Marling, William, Dashiell Hammett, Twayne (New York, NY), 1983.

Marling, William, The American Roman Noir: Hammett, Cain, and Chandler, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1995.

Mellen, Joan, The Legendary Passion of Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1996.

MunDell, E. H., A List of the Original Appearances of Dashiell Hammett's Magazine Work, Kent State University Press (Kent, OH), 1968.

Nolan, William F., Dashiell Hammett: A Casebook, McNally & Loftin (Santa Barbara, CA), 1969.

Nolan, William F., Hammett: A Life at the Edge, Congdon and Weed (New York, NY), 1983.

Symons, Julian, Dashiell Hammett, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1985.


Atlantic Monthly, December, 1944, Raymond Chandler, "The Simple Art of Murder," pp. 53-59.

Baltimore News-American, August 19, 1973.

Booklist, May 1, 2001, Connie Fletcher, review of Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett, 1921-1960, p. 1631.

Bookman, March, 1929, Herbert Asbury, review of Red Harvest.

City of San Francisco, November 4, 1975.

Daily Variety, October 31, 2002, David Rooney, review of The House on Turk Street, p. 6.

Esquire, September, 1934.

Explicator, spring, 2002, Daniel Linder, "Hammett's The Maltese Falcon," pp. 154-157.

Globe & Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), February 4, 1989.

Library Journal, January, 2000, Michael Rogers, review of Dashiell Hammett: Complete Novels, p. 173; April 1, 2001, Charles C. Nash, review of Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett, 1921-1960, p. 101; July, 2001, Michael Rogers, review of Crime Stories and Other Writings, p. 132; October 15, 2003, Michael Rogers, "Let Us Talk About the Black Bird," p. 62.

Miami Herald, March 17, 1974.

New Republic, February 7, 1944, Andre Gide, review of Red Harvest.

New Yorker, February 11, 2002, Claudia Roth Pierpoint, "Tough Guy; The Mystery of Dashiell Hammett," pp. 66-75.

New York Review of Books, February 14, 2002, Margaret Atwood, "Mystery Man," pp. 19-21.

New York Times, January 11, 1961; January 11, 1987; August 25, 1988.

Outlook, February 13, 1929, W. R. Brooks, review of Red Harvest; February 26, 1930, W. R. Brooks, review of The Maltese Falcon.

People, February 12, 1996, p. 149.

Publishers Weekly, August 13, 2001, review of Crime Stories and Other Writings, p. 289.

Saturday Evening Post, March-April, 1992, p. 78.

Smithsonian, May, 1994, p. 114.

Spectator, February 14, 1931, M. I. Cole, review of The Glass Key.

Washington Post Book World, October 2, 1988.*

Dashiell Hammett

views updated Jun 11 2018

Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) was a seminal figure in the development of the peculiarly American contribution to crime fiction—the hard-boiled detective story.

Samuel Dashiell Hammett was born of English and French descendants on May 27, 1894, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the second of three children. His formal education was limited—he attended Baltimore Polytechnic Institute for just one year, leaving at the age of 13 to help his father run a small business. He worked in his teens as a newsboy, freight clerk, railroad laborer, messenger boy, and stevedore.

From 1915 to 1921 Hammett worked on and off as an operative for the Pinkerton detective agency, serving on the scandalous Fatty Arbuckle rape case and on the 1920-1921 Anaconda copper mine strike. Hammett's Pinkerton tenure, which was to provide the material for much of his fiction, was interrupted several times, first by his brief World War I service as a sergeant in the Motor Ambulance Corps, where he contracted tuberculosis, and then by the disease's recurrence a few years after the war. Throughout his life Hammett was to be plagued by poor health, aggravated no doubt by his heavy drinking and smoking.

In 1920, while a hospital patient, Hammett married his nurse, Josephine Dolan, by whom he had two daughters, but their cohabitation was only occasional. Much of the time, to avoid the danger of infecting her or the children with his highly contagious disease, Hammett occupied a separate room of their apartment and, at times, lived apart from the family in a hotel.

The Writing Years

Hammett's writing career began in earnest in 1922 with a story printed in The Smart Set; until then he had published only a handful of poems. In 1923, in the pioneering crime fiction magazine Black Mask, Hammett's story "Arson Plus" introduced a character later to become famous in two of his novels—a nameless San Francisco detective agency operative (based on an actual Baltimore Pinkerton agent) referred to only as "the Continental Op"; his persona ran counter to the familiar fictional detective types because he was neither a genius nor a dandy but a fat, fortyish, low-keyed professional matter-of-factly doing his unglamorous job.

Hammett's stories are less artistically successful than his novels. They display a sure hand at characterization, dialogue, and setting, but the plots tend toward an over-complexity which then require too much authorial explanation in the wrap-up.

Hammett ground out a precarious living in the 1920s, supplementing his income from fiction by book-reviewing:in 1924 and 1925 he wrote three reviews for Forum, a prestigious literary journal; from 1927 to 1929, more than 50 mystery novel reviews for the Saturday Review of Literature; and in 1929 and 1930, 85 mystery novel reviews for the New York Evening Post.

The first Continental Op novel, Red Harvest (1928), was originally serialized in four parts in Black Mask. Anaconda, Montana, familiar to Hammett from his Pinkerton days, served as the model for its setting, Personville, which its cynical inhabitants pronounce "Poisonville." The novel is primarily a thriller but offers a big sociological bonus in its scathing dissection of small-town American corruption.

The Dain Curse (1929) was the second and last Op novel, although three more Op stories appeared later. It is a broken-backed novel, the plot of which seems exhausted a third of the way in but is then surprisingly reopened. It is less sociological than Red Harvest but even more sensational. It involves multiple murder (eight in all), madness, morphine addiction, sexual phobia, and religious cultism. Its theme is mythic:beauty and innocence traduced by evil but finally redeemed by a savior (the Op).

The Maltese Falcon (1930) was perhaps Hammett's masterpiece. A new hero-detective, Sam Spade, was introduced but, unlike the Op, he does not serve as the narrator of the novel, which was written in the third person. In his introduction to the 1934 Modern Library edition Hammett said of Spade:"He is a loner, operating outside of agencies and outside of the law, but has the same code as the Op—a personal sense of right which supersedes civil law." Also, like the Op, Spade is street-wise, and both "have the calloused emotions needed to do their jobs effectively." Sam Spade, more than the Op, served as the prototype for hundreds of tough, wise-cracking fictional detectives; the influence at its best resulted in Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe and Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer; at its worst it resulted in Mickey Spillane's sex-and-violence caricature, Mike Hammer.

The Maltese Falcon theme is the destructive power of greed and the illusory nature of wealth, which is expressed through a superb symbol:the much-sought-after jewel encrusted object never appears—all the scheming and killing, ironically, are done for a worthless imitation. The novel was a huge success, reprinted seven times in its first year, and the movie rights were sold to Warner Brothers. A later remake (1941) starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sidney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre became a cult classic and is unquestionably the finest of the many film adaptations of Hammett's novels.

The Glass Key (1931) was Hammett's favorite among his novels. Written in one continuous writing session of 30 hours, it is a hard-boiled variation of the traditional love triangle, of two friends in love with the same woman, played out against a backdrop of political manipulation, upper-class decadence, and murder. Its theme is the dehumanizing effect of social and political power. The book is a model of novelistic objectivity:there is no sentimentalizing, no character evaluation, and no social editorializing. Hammett dedicated the book to Nell Martin, with whom he lived in New York from 1929 to 1931.

In the 1930s Hammett spent five years on Hollywood payrolls doing very little movie writing but living lavishly and flamboyantly, and occasionally involving himself in left-wing political causes. He also wrote stories for the better-paying slick magazines such as Collier's, Liberty, Harper's Bazaar, Esquire, and American Magazine. Although he was one of the highest-paid writers of the 1930s, his expenses usually exceeded his income. It was in Hollywood that he struck up an enduring friendship with playwright Lillian Hellman, whose work he encouraged and even occasionally revised; although a romantic legend sprang up around their love affair, Hammett remained very much a loner all of his life and lived apart from Hellman much more than with her.

The Thin Man (1934), Hammett's last novel, was banned in Canada and was labelled "amoral" by a number of magazine editors who refused to serialize it. Nick Charles, an ex-private detective who retired after marrying into wealth, reluctantly investigates a man's disappearance and some related murders. Nick's investigative style is passive:he doesn't go out in search of anyone or anything—it all comes to him. What scandalized the bluenoses was the image of a married couple, Nick and Nora, who seemed less than monogamous (long before the voguish concept of the "open marriage"). The characters who populate the novel mark a reduction in Hammett's customary energy level, but it is still an engaging, well-plotted suspense tale. Ironically, though it was perhaps artistically the weakest of Hammett's novels, it was by far his greatest commercial success. Earnings from the novel, its characters, and spin-offs from 1933 to 1950 totaled about $1 million. An interesting sidelight was the public confusion as to the identity of "the thin man, " which was compounded by the photograph of the tubercularly thin Hammett on the novel's dust jacket and by the film persona created by the elegantly slim William Powell. Actually, the sobriquet applied not at all to Nick Charles, but to the missing man that Charles was seeking.

The Later Years

Perhaps a bigger mystery than any Hammett created was the virtual end, at age 39, of his career. Undoubtedly poor health exacerbated by dissipation was part of the story, but another part was his temperament. Hammett never took fame seriously, nor did extremes of poverty and affluence ever seem to affect him deeply. Above all, he seems not to have been at all ambitious.

"Dash, " as his friends called him, was a prematurely gray-haired, nattily-dressed, slender six-footer who was (despite his fondness for privacy) universally well-liked. He was a "night writer, " one who preferred writing in the wee small hours. He was also an inveterate reader who especially admired the work of Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Ben Hecht, Robinson Jeffers, and William Faulkner; the last, in fact, became a good friend and drinking companion.

During World War II, at the age of 48, Hammett enlisted as a private in the Army and edited an Alaskan army camp newspaper, The Adakian, from 1944 to 1945. He was honorably discharged as a sergeant in 1945 and began teaching writing courses at Jefferson School of Social Science, a Marxist institute in New York City. In the late 1940s Hammett was earning $1, 300 a week for three weekly radio serials using his fictional characters Sam Spade, the Thin Man, and the Fat Man (Caspar Gutman from The Maltese Falcon).

In 1951, however, Hammett's fortunes took a downward turn. He became one of many victims of the super-patriotic hysteria that characterized post-war American political life. Hammett had for some years been president of the New York Civil Rights Congress, and when it posted bail for a group of Communists on trial for conspiracy, four of whom jumped bail and disappeared, Hammett was subpoenaed. His subsequent refusal to reveal the sources of the bail fund resulted in a contempt citation, the cancellation of his Sam Spade radio series, and imprisonment. The irony of his political victimization was striking:Hammett's active connection with the Communist movement was, by all accounts, very slight. Lillian Hellman, in fact, later said that as far as she knew Hammett had never once been to the congress' offices and hadn't known the name of even one contributor. But he had told her, "If it were my life, I would give it for what I think democracy is … (but) I don't let cops or judges tell me what I think democracy is."

After serving five months in prison he was released but then immediately charged by the Internal Revenue Service with $100, 000 in back taxes. In 1953 he appeared as a polite but unsympathetic witness before a Senate committee investigating pro-Communist books on overseas library shelves; the committee, headed by the infamous Joseph McCarthy, branded Hammett's books as "subversive" and recommended their removal!

Money and health gone forever, Hammett spent his last years in alcoholic seclusion, living in a small rural cottage in Katonah, New York, and spending his summers at Lillian Hellman's house on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. Here he suffered a heart attack in 1955. He died on January 10, 1961, at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

Further Reading

The two major biographical sources are Richard Layman's Shadow Man:The Life of Dashiell Hammett (1981) and Diane Johnson's Dashiell Hammett (1983). A more personal view may be found in Lillian Hellman's four memoirs, Pentimento, Scoundrel Time, An Unfinished Woman, and her introduction to a reprint of some of Hammett's work, The Big Knockover (1972). There is also a lovingly humorous fictional portrait in Joe Gores' parodistic thriller Hammett (1975).

Additional Sources

Johnson, Diane, Dashiell Hammett, a life, New York:Random House, 1983.

Layman, Richard, Shadow man:the life of Dashiell Hammett, New York:Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984, 1981.

Nolan, William F., Hammett: a life at the edge, New York: Congdon & Weed:Distributed by St. Martin's Press, 1983.

Symons, Julian, Dashiell Hammett, San Diego:Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985. □

Hammett, Dashiell

views updated May 14 2018


Dashiell Hammett (May 27, 1894–January 10, 1961) was born on a tobacco farm in St. Mary's County, Maryland, and raised in Baltimore, where he attended school until the age of 14. He worked for several years in low-paying jobs before joining the Pinkerton National Detectives, where he gathered the detective lore that would be crucial to his later writing. During World War I, he served in the Army (though without leaving the United States) and contracted a case of tuberculosis that would compromise his health for the remainder of his life. In the mid-twenties, Hammett began publishing stories in the pulp magazine Black Mask, where the verisimilitude of his detective fiction soon made him the magazine's marquee writer. Leaping to the prestigious publishing house of Alfred A. Knopf, Hammett published four novels in quick succession: Red Harvest and The Dain Curse (1929), The Maltese Falcon (1930), and The Glass Key (1931). Widely praised for their streamlined construction and their coolly dispassionate tone, the novels made Hammett an instant literary celebrity, successful with popular readers and prominent intellectuals alike.

Yet, though he achieved fame during the early thirties and though he influenced writers who would become successful later in the decade, Hammett was not truly a writer shaped by the Depression. His most significant work was done during the late twenties and reflected the attraction to intellectual sophistication prevalent among intellectuals at the time. Emphasizing the professional skill of his detective heroes, Hammett's fiction placed great stress on the values of discipline and expertise and showed consistent doubtfulness about the intelligence of ordinary people. By 1931, his burst of creative energy was drawing to a close. After The Glass Key, Hammett published one additional novel, The Thin Man (1934), whose renowned wit barely conceals the fears of the novel's playboy detective that he is slipping toward decadence.

For the remainder of the thirties, the bulk of Hammett's energies were devoted to left-wing political activity, to which he and his lover, the playwright Lillian Hellman, were fiercely committed. During World War II, he served as an enlisted man on an Alaskan military base. In 1951, he served six months in federal prison for contempt of court after he refused to disclose the names of contributors to the bail bond fund of the Civil Rights Congress, an organization associated with the Communist Party, of which he was a trustee. Hammett died in 1961.



Hammett, Dashiell. The Dain Curse. 1929.

Hammett, Dashiell. The Maltese Falcon. 1930.

Hammett, Dashiell. The Glass Key. 1931.

Hammett, Dashiell. The Thin Man. 1934.

Johnson, Diane. Dashiell Hammett: A Life. 1985.

Layman, Richard. Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett. 1981.

Sean McCann

Hammett, Dashiell

views updated May 29 2018

Hammett, Dashiell (1894–1961) US writer, the originator of realistic, hard-boiled detective fiction. Hammett drew on his own experience as a Pinkerton detective to create the investigators Sam Spade and Nick Charles. His books include Red Harvest (1929), The Maltese Falcon (1930), and The Thin Man (1934) – all of which were made into successful films.