Dashiell Hammett

You can’t talk about the mystery genre, especially hard-boiled detectives, without a discussion about Dashiell Hammett. He continues to be revered as one of America’s finest mystery writers, not to mention he is credited with being instrumental in introducing the hardboiled detective into the genre. First, a little bit about Dashiell Hammett.

Hammett’s Bio

Samuel Dashiell Hammett was born in St Mary’s County Maryland in 1894. He left school at the age of 13 and after several jobs began working at the Pinkerton Detective Agency between 1915 and 1922. He took time off from the agency to serve in World War I in the ambulance corp. During the war he contracted the Spanish Flu and later developed tuberculosis. The tuberculosis continued to affect him the rest of his life.

While he was being treated for his tuberculosis he met and married a nurse Josephine Dolan. They settled in San Francisco and many of Hammett’s stories take place on the streets of this city. While waiting for the birth of their second daughter it was suggested that Hammett not live with the family because of his TB. They continued to reside in San Francisco but in separated residences. With these living arrangements the couple eventually split and Hammett moved down to Hollywood.

In Hollywood Hammett’s new found writing success gave him the opportunity to move in circles with the Hollywood elite. Hammett was a heavy drinker and his lifestyle during this period only added to his alcoholism. Aside from the movie crowd he met other writers like Hemingway and playwright Lillian Hellman. Hammett and Hellman moved in together and this relationship, while sometimes rocky, lasted for thirty years.

During World War II he re-enlisted and served as a sergeant in the Aleutian Islands where he edited the Army newspaper.  During this service he developed emphysema. After the war Hammett taught writing at a Marxist school and became a political activist.

Hammett’s writing came to slow crawl once he became involved in political issues. As a result of his political activities Hammett was called before Congress and took the fifth. He refused to provide the government with information about his activities especially the names of people contributing the CRC (Civil Rights Congress) bail fund which he managed. He was black listed and sentenced for contempt of Congress. He served jail time in the West Virginia penitentiary which only made his tuberculosis worse. When he left prison he found the IRS had attached his income and royalties for back taxes.

He spent the last years of his life secluded in a small cottage in Katonah, NY. Between his health and his heavy drinking his days as a writer were over. In the last months of his life he battled lung cancer and died in January 1961. Because of his war service he was buried in Arlington Cemetery.

Hammett as Writer

Hammett’s work with the Pinkerton Detective Agency provided him with the inspiration for his detectives, villains and plots.

Hammett wrote over 80 stories, an original radio series called The Fat Man and even a comic strip. He worked on numerous Hollywood movies because of his ability to write crisp dialogue. However, other writers crafted scripts for his books and The Thin Man movie series.

While Hammett did have a story published in an upscale society magazine his hardboiled type of detective stories fared better in pulp magazines like the Black Mask. In one of the Black Mask stories he introduced a character with no name referred to only as “the Continental Op.”  The Op was a detective from the Continental Detective Agency. In his first novel Red Harvest he also featured this character. This detective exhibits the characteristics that later developed into the standard for the hard-boiled detective.

He now had a following for his writing and published a second book featuring the Continental Op called The Dain Curse. For his next book Hammett further honed the characteristics of the hardboiled detective when he introduced Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. He called the detective Sam based on his first name Samuel. The year after The Maltese Falcon he published The Glass Key. And finally and unfortunately The Thin Man was his last novel, although he continued writing stories and radio scripts into the 40’s.

Hammett’s 5 novels

Red Harvest (1929)–narrated by the Continental Op detective this character led the way for the development of the hardboiled detectives that would follow. The story concerns a labor dispute involving local gangs with a few murders along the way.

The Dain Curse (1929)–the Continental Op detective investigates a theft of diamonds. As the detective untangles a series of robberies, lies and murder, he also reveals the skeletons in the family closet.

The Maltese Falcon (1930)–the quintessential and most famous private eye is introduced in the character of Sam Spade. Sam Spade is an independent man who operates on the fringes of society and just outside the law.

The Glass Key (1931)–the story of Ned Beaumont, a gambler not a detective, who is dedicated to a crooked political boss. This is an understated crime in a political setting and was Hammett’s favorite book.

The Thin Man (1934)–introduces a very tough, former private detective, Nick Charles, and his wealthy socialite wife, Nora. The story, along with solving the crime, has lots of witty dialogue that reveals a comedy of social manners between the couple. Many believe the characters of Nick and Nora reflect the personalities of Hammett and Hellman.


(Look for more about hard-boiled detectives in an upcoming blog)

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