Dashiell Hammett, 1894-1961
It's possible that more people attended Dashiell Hammett's birth than his funeral. Samuel Dashiell Hammett was born in St. Mary's County, Maryland, on May 27, 1894, on the family farm called, with a touch of fateful poetry, Hopewell and Aim. Hammett grew to be a solitary teenager, quick to fight and hungry to read, a frequenter of libraries. The family's shaky finances obliged him to quit school at fourteen and go to work.
In 1915 Hammett joined the Baltimore office of Pinkerton's National Detective Agency and subsequently filed three years of case reports, whose sparsely embellished style colored most everything Hammett ever wrote. When Hammett joined the U.S. Army in 1918, he never got closer to World War I than Camp Meade, Maryland, where he drove an ambulance until his tuberculosis led to an honorable discharge. Hammett then resumed his Pinkerton career in Washington state, where TB eventually landed him back in a military hospital.
There he met Josephine "Jose" Dolan, a nurse whose care proved so attentive that they moved to San Francisco and married in July of 1921. They welcomed their first daughter four months later. In October 1922, after a year of scribbling at the San Francisco Public Library, Hammett sent H.L. Mencken a very short story called "The Parthian Shot" for his magazine The Smart Set. The story was published, launching Hammett's career.
From The Smart Set, Hammett soon graduated to detective stories in the pulp magazine Black Mask about a nameless detective. In time, self-contained stories gave way to installments of serial novels, which Hammett then reworked into the books Red Harvest (1929) and The Dain Curse (1929). He published The Maltese Falcon in 1930, moved to New York, and wrote The Glass Key (1931) and The Thin Man (1934), his last novel.
By 1934, Hammett was written out. Though he had separated from Jose five years before and begun a lasting affair with the playwright Lillian Hellman in 1931, though he remained a devoted absentee father to his girls in southern California.
More and more, Hammett concentrated his energies on politics. He gave considerable sums of money to help fight fascism in Spain, co-published a magazine called Equality, and gave many political speeches. In 1942, he rejoined the U.S. Army during World War II as an unhealthy forty-eight-year old private and served three years in Alaska, editing the base newspaper called The Adakian.
But his military service didn't save him during the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s, when he spent six months in jail for contempt of court. Senator Joseph McCarthy even succeeded in yanking three-hundred copies of Hammett's books from State Department libraries around the world, until they were restored by order of one highly placed fan: President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
None of this persecution was good for Hammett's ever-precarious health and finances. He died on January 10, 1961, in a New York hospital. Hellman, his sister, and three cousins buried him three days later in the military cemetery at Arlington, Virginia, roughly forty miles from his birthplace at Hopewell and Aim.
The invention of the detective story predates the invention of the private detective by at least 2,500 years. If Oedipus Rex, the story of a Theban king on the trail of his father's killer, isn't a story of detection, what is? But credit for creating the first true detective probably belongs to Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), whose story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," pioneered the idea of a lone mastermind sifting clues and out-thinking everyone around him. The most popular fictional detective surely remains Sherlock Holmes, the London-based amateur sleuth created by Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930).
Dashiell Hammett, first in his short stories for Black Mask and later in his novels, transplanted the genteel British detective story to America and gave it an urban realism that would have baffled Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie. In the 1920s and 1930s, Hammett wrote more than eighty short stories and five novels. His crisp style and vivid slang created a gritty, street-level realism that registered strongly with the public.
Often set in large, corrupt cities, Hammett's stories tend to feature an independent-minded detective, a working man at odds with his violent society. His motivations-whether monetary reward, a search for truth, or the preservation of his integrity-remain for the reader to decide.
As Hammett's great successor Raymond Chandler wrote in his fine, funny essay "The Simple Art of Murder," 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 dueling pistols, curare, and tropical fish."
In a phrase popularized by the great newspaperman Damon Runyon, a Hammett detective was "hardboiled": fundamentally a good egg, but far from soft. Hammett's genius lay in devising a style to match his masculine heroes. Even more than his heirs Chandler, James M. Cain, and Ross Macdonald, Hammett never wasted an adjective, refining a tightly visual vocabulary until everything inessential was boiled away.
Dashiell Hammett, c. 1932 (Courtesy of Josephine Hammett)
Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, Mary Astor as Brigid O'Shaughnessy, and Sydney Greenstreet as Casper Gutman in a scene from the 1941 movie of The Maltese Falcon (Bettmann/Corbis)
San Francisco, 1925 (Library of Congress)