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A celebrated author of American crime fiction, Dashiell Hammett is widely considered the originator of the ”hard-boiled” detective story. He is the creator of some of the most enduring characters in mystery fiction, including detective Sam Spade and married sleuths Nick and Nora Charles.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Career as a Detective
Hammett was born on May 27, 1894, on his grandfather’s farm near Baltimore, Maryland, to Richard and Annie Bond Hammett. His education was limited: in 1908 he left the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute after being enrolled in the high school for less than a semester. Hammett contributed to the family’s failing finances with a series of office jobs. In 1915, he began working for the Baltimore office of the Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, an organization that provided a variety of services from insurance investigations to strikebreaking. He traveled throughout the western United States on assignment for the agency for two years, and his experiences as a Pinkerton operative provided much of the material for his subsequent career as a writer.
Service during World War I
Beginning with his induction in June 1918, Hammett served during World War I with the U.S. Army Motor Ambulance Corps at Camp Mead, Maryland. He contracted Spanish influenza, which later progressed to tuberculosis, and received a medical discharge from the army in May 1919. The next year, having relocated to the West Coast and briefly returned to work for Pinkerton, he was admitted to Cushman Hospital in Tacoma, Washington. Hammett was hospitalized at Cushman and another Public Health Service hospital in San Diego from November 1920 until May 1921. During that time he commenced a relationship with one of his nurses at Cushman, Josephine Dolan, whom he married in July 1921 when she was six months pregnant with their first child. The Hammetts eventually had two daughters, Mary, born in 1921, and Josephine, born in 1926.
Hammett continued to work as a Pinkerton operative for as long as his health permitted. In 1921, he participated in two of the most famous criminal investigations of the day, involving the murder charge against movie comedian Fatty Arbuckle and the theft of $125,000 in gold specie from the ocean freighter Sonoma. In 1922, he entered Munson’s Business College with the intention of training to be a journalist. Hammett supported his family primarily with a disability stipend from the military.
Writing Career Begins
Hammett turned his attention to writing and published his first story, ”The Parthian Shot” (1922), in the magazine The Smart Set. Over the next several years he wrote prodigiously, publishing in a variety of genres from light verse and comic sketches to articles for professional journals, but he had his most promising success when he utilized his experience as a detective. In one of his earliest published works, ”From the Memoirs of a Private Detective” (1923), which also appeared in The Smart Set, Hammett offers twenty-nine brief—some only a sentence long—anecdotes and insights from his Pinkerton years.
Hammett found his greatest success in Black Mask, a pulp magazine devoted to stories of crime and adventure. In October 1923, he published ”Arson Plus,” his first Black Mask story featuring a nameless operative for the Continental Detective Agency. Black Mask readers took to the character immediately, and Hammett published almost exclusively in the magazine for the next three years, featuring the Continental Op, as he is conventionally known, in twenty-six stories.
Brief Hiatus from Writing
Hammett took a hiatus of nearly a year from writing fiction beginning in 1926, spurred by a conflict with the Black Mask management over payment, as well as by the necessity to find more secure employment after the birth of his second daughter. In March 1926, he began writing advertising copy for the Albert S. Samuels Jewelry Company. Hammett later dedicated The Dain Curse (1929) to Samuels, and named several of its characters after his Samuels Jewelry coworkers.
Hammett’s chronic health problems worsened, necessitating that he give up working full time for Samuels and live essentially separately from his family after July 1926. Despite his condition, he drank heavily and pursued a series of sexual affairs. Hammett’s The Glass Key (1931) is dedicated to one of his lovers, Nell Martin, who dedicated her novel Lovers Should Marry (1933) to him. He also returned to writing fiction, at the invitation of former infantry captain Joseph T. Shaw, the new editor of Black Mask, who considered Hammett the exemplar of the direction in which he intended to take the magazine. In January
1927, the same month that Black Mask announced his return, Hammett began a stint of nearly three years reviewing mystery novels for The Saturday Review of Literature, a position he probably gained with Shaw’s help.
Career as a Novelist
Hammett’s first novel, Red Harvest (1929), was published by Knopf. It originally appeared in Black Mask from November 1927toFebruary 1928 as four interrelated stories. Although Red Harvest is not explicitly a political novel, it is informed by the labor unrest Hammett had witnessed during his years as a Pinkerton op.
Hammett began his second novel, The Dain Curse (1929), immediately upon completing Red Harvest. It also first appeared serially in Black Mask, from November 1928 to February 1929. With its generational curse, incest, drug use and brainwashing, religious cultism, and diabolical mastermind for a villain, the plot of The Dain Curse is Hammett’s most exotic. The Dain Curse received positive reviews when it was published as a novel.
Hs next novel, The Maltese Falcon (1930), was an immediate critical and popular success, reprinted seven times in its first year. The novel was widely proclaimed to have reinvented the mystery genre. The protagonist, Sam Spade, particularly seemed unprecedented to the reviewers. The novel has been adapted for the screen three times, most notably in a 1940 Warner Bros. production directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart as Spade.
Affair with Lillian Hellman
Hammett went to Hollywood in the summer of 1930; the motion-picture industry, which had recently made the transition to sound, welcomed writers of good dialogue. With his wit and style, he immediately fell in with a coterie of writers who had their initial success in New York, including Ben Hecht, S. J. Perelman, and Nunnally Johnson. Hammett’s first screenplay, for the Paramount movie City Streets (1931), was a success at the time. Perhaps most significantly, Hammett was introduced to Lillian Hellman, a script reader for M-G-M, in November 1930. She was significantly younger than Hammett and, like him, married, but the two began an affair.
Hammett had already completed his fourth novel, The Glass Key (1931), before The Maltese Falcon was published. Considered by many—including the author himself—to be his best novel, The Glass Key is Hammett s further attempt to break with the conventions of detective fiction. The protagonist of the novel, Ned Beaumont, is not a detective—he is, in fact, a criminal. The Glass Key garnered Hammett s usual positive reviews, although perhaps inevitably it was judged to miss the high standard established by The Maltese Falcon.
After writing four novels in less than three years, Hammett took another three years to complete his fifth and last novel, The Thin Man (1934). The Thin Man rivaled The Maltese Falcon as Hammett s greatest popular success, although it has subsequently been judged his weakest novel by most critics. At the time of the publication of The Thin Man Hammett was at the height of his fame; however, his literary output ended with that novel because of a variety of factors, including his alcoholism and ill health and to some extent his stormy relationship with Hellman.
Chronic Writer’s Block Ends Literary Career
Hammett s literary career effectively ended with the publication of The Thin Man. In March 1934 he published his last original story, ”This Little Pig,” in Collier’s magazine. He was for the rest of his life plagued by a profound sense of writer’s block. Over the years of their relationship, as Hammett s celebrity waned and Hellman became more prominent, Hammett served as an editor and writing mentor to her, a role he approached with generosity and conscientiousness.
In 1934, he collaborated briefly on a comic strip for the Hearst newspaper syndicate, Secret Agent X-9, with Flash Gordon creator Alex Raymond. He also found more work in Hollywood, planning sequels for The Thin Man and adapting his story ”On the Make” for the Universal movie Mister Dynamite (1935). Hammett made a lot of money in Hollywood during the first half of the decade, ultimately selling the rights to his Thin Man characters to M-G-M for $40,000 in 1937. His ability to spend outstripped his capacity to earn, however, and by the latter half of the decade his career as a screenwriter had been fatally undermined by his reputation for unreliability.
During his time in Hollywood, Hammett was involved in the activities of the Screen Writers Guild, which, since its formation in 1933, had been engaged in rancorous labor negotiations with studio executives, and became a member of the Communist Party in 1936 or 1937. In 1938, he was elected chairman of the Motion Picture Artists Committee. In the turbulent political climate of the early 1940s, Hammett was a vocal antifascist and opponent of the war in Europe, serving as president of the League of American Writers beginning in 1941. During this period, he adapted Hellman s antifascist play Watch on the Rhine (1940) for the screen and taught writing courses in propaganda techniques. In September 1942, Hammett was accepted into the army at the age of forty-seven, and served first in New Jersey and later in Alaska s Aleutian Islands.
Discharged as a sergeant in September 1945, Hammett returned uneasily to civilian life. He was still a literary celebrity, with paperback editions of his magazine fiction introducing his stories to a new readership, although Hammett was receiving little money from them. He resumed drinking heavily, but after being told by doctors he was drinking himself to death, Hammett was finally able to give up alcohol for good by the end of 1948. He rededicated himself to his political commitments. Hammett s activities, along with those of many others, came under government scrutiny for being ”Communist” and ”un-American.” In March 1953, he testified before the Senate Committee on Government Operations, chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy, concerning the purchase by the State Department of books by known Communists. Hammett s books were pulled from State Department libraries around the world, although President Dwight Eisenhower had them replaced when he learned of the action.
Financial Problems and Deteriorating Health
In the latter part of the 1950s, Hammett was plagued by health and financial problems. His books were out of print; the royalties from his creations had long run out; and from 1951 until his death he was subject to a federal judgment for tax evasion. He did work on an autobiographical novel during this period, ”Tulip, which he abandoned sometime around 1953; the extant fragment of it was published in The Big Knockover (1966), edited by Hellman. Hammett died of lung cancer on January 10, 1961. As a veteran of two wars, Hammett was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, over the objections of commentators in the press who recalled his Communist activities.
Works in Literary Context
Writing in a terse prose style frequently compared to that of Ernest Hemingway, Hammett focused on the investigations of callous, cynical private detectives who became the archetype for scores of protagonists in American television, popular literature, and film. Hammett’s writing was heavily influenced by his experiences working as a private detective.
Realism and Hardboiled Crime Fiction
Prior to Hammett, detective fiction was primarily based on a formula established by the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. The success of Hammett’s fiction popularized hardboiled crime fiction, a style first adopted by Carroll John Daly earlier in the 1920s. Although Hammett retained elements of the traditional English mystery, he abandoned the genre’s genteel, idealized characters and exotic settings, favoring a more realistic approach to the seedy world of urban crime. In Hammett’s fiction, gangland criminals, corrupt officials, police, and even detectives share a degree of guilt. Critics have praised Hammett’s colorful characterizations, his accurate reproduction of vernacular or common speech, and his use of realistic detail. Hammett’s artistic legacy is a vision of a violent, morally rudderless society in which his characters try to navigate with only their own ethical codes to guide them. His prose—brutal, ironic, and slangy—quickly and permanently came to be considered the epitome of the hard-boiled style.
Works in Critical Context
Hammett gained a readership when he began publishing his crime fiction in Black Mask, but he did not achieve widespread popular success until the publication of The Maltese Falcon, the novel which many claim changed the face of crime fiction. While most of his fiction was met with praise, his reputation as a writer was overshadowed by his political affiliations at the time of his death.
By the end of the twentieth century, Hammett’s literary reputation seemed secure. New printings of his works continued to appear, and in 1999 the Library of America edition of his complete novels was published. His lean, ironic prose and understated, sometimes mean, sometimes romantic view of human nature has continued to exert an influence, particularly on detective fiction, but also on literature and popular culture more generally, including motion pictures and television.
Response to Hammett’s first novel, Red Harvest, was enthusiastic, with most reviewers seemingly thrilled by its sensational aspects. The French novelist Andre Gide, writing in the New Republic, praises Hammett’s dialogue, ”in which every character is trying to deceive all the others and in which the truth slowly becomes visible through a fog of deception.” Herbert Asbury, writing in Bookman, calls it ”the liveliest detective story that has been published in a decade” and refers to the murder of Dinah
Brand as an ”excellent crime” and ”one of the high points” of the novel. Asbury compared Hammett favorably to Ernest Hemingway, a subject to which reviewers and scholars have often returned. The stylistic similarities between the two authors are readily apparent: both favor unadorned—at times opaque—descriptions and characterization. Less superficially, critics recognized that Hammett had imbued the crime genre with a world-weariness and existential anxiety similar to Hemingway’s modernism. It is a quality Gide refers to in his journals as Hammett’s ”implacable cynicism.”
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- Edenbaum, Robert I. ”The Poetics of the Private Eye: The Novels of Dashiell Hammett.” Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties, edited by David Madden. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968, pp. 80-103.
- Gregory, Sinda. Private Investigations: The Novels of Dashiell Hammett. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985.
- Hellman, Lillian. Introduction to The Big Knockover and Other Stories by Dashiell Hammett. New York: Random House, 1966.
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- Wolfe, Peter. Beams Falling: The Art of Dashiell Hammett. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1980.
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- Balzelon, Donald T. ”Dashiell Hammett’s Private Eye: No Loyalty Beyond the Job.” Commentary 7 (1949): 467-472.
- Chandler, Raymond. ”The Simple Art of Murder.” Atlantic Monthly. (December 1944): 53-59.
- Gardner, Frederick. ”The Return of the Continental Op.” Nation (October 31, 1966): 454-456.
- Metress, Christopher. ”Dashiell Hammett and the Challenge of New Individualism: Rereading Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon.” Essays in Literature 17 (1990): 242-260.
- Schulman, Robert. ”Dashiell Hammett’s Social Vision.” Centennial Review 29 (Fall 1985): 400-419.
- Whitley, John S. ”Stirring Things Up: Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op.” Journal of American Studies14 (1980): 443-455.
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