Like many writers, Hammett came nearest to autobiography at his career's beginning. In his first published story, "The Parthian Shot," Hammett featured a woman who leaves her family and heads west. When he wrote it in 1922, Hammett himself had already moved from New York to San Francisco. Within a few years he would leave his own family, although he'd continue to financially support his two daughters.
After this early sketch, Hammett's next breakthrough came a year later with the publication in Black Mask of "Arson Plus," his first story about an unnamed Continental Detective Agency operative (known for short as "the Continental Op"). Over the next few years, Hammett introduced several elements all but new to detective fiction: realism, nihilism, fallible detectives, and slang—both overheard and invented.
"The Big Knock-Over" (1927) was Hammett's longest story yet, and soon he tried out a serial novel in Black Mask. Serialization gave Hammett the chance to work over the novel twice, first in magazine installments, and later as the book Red Harvest (1929). There he brought back "the Continental Op" as an amoral antihero, a loner who rides into a corrupt town and calmly goes about setting two rival gangs at each other's throats.
That same year brought another serial novel, The Dain Curse (1929), in which "the Op" rescues a young woman from morphine addiction and no fewer than eight related murder raps. This new chivalry showed Hammett chafing against the character limitations of his anonymous corporate operative.
Along with The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key (1931) contains some of Hammett's best, toughest writing. The story of a political fixer's eventual disillusionment with his boss, it's more of a gangster novel than a mystery.
Hammett created perhaps his most romantic characters in The Thin Man (1934): Nick and Nora Charles, two wisecracking socialites who investigate crimes between highballs. Hammett dedicated The Thin Man to the playwright Lillian Hellman, and a few have suggested that Hellman wrote more of it than he did.
In fact, according to scholar Richard Layman, Hammett wrote more of Hellman's plays than she ever wrote of his novels. Hammett gave her the idea for her first Broadway play, The Children's Hour (1934), and worked closely with her on several others. As a novelist, though, despite several false starts on a non-mystery called "Tulip," The Thin Man would stand as Hammett's own premature parting shot.
Hollywood and The Maltese Falcon have at least this much in common: They're each consumed with the pursuit of a foot-high golden statuette. Hammett probably deserved at least a shared Oscar for the 1941 movie, since most of its dialogue comes straight from the book, but his only nomination came for a different film years later. Even without The Maltese Falcon, Hollywood has Hammett to thank for more than a few good movies, and possibly an entire genre.
Filmmakers have adapted all of Hammett's novels at least once. Decades after Ben Hecht adapted Red Harvest as Roadhouse Nights (1930), Akira Kurosawa turned it into a samurai story in Yojimbo (1961), and Sergio Leone found in it the makings of his first spaghetti western, A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Paramount had a crack at The Glass Key in 1935 with George Raft and made it again in 1942, a bit better, with Alan Ladd. The Thin Man film series immortally paired William Powell and Myrna Loy as Hammett's husband-and-wife crime solvers through one superior and several inferior sequels. TV writer Robert Lenski turned The Dain Curse into an eminently watchable 1978 miniseries, with James Coburn miscast but well tailored as Hammett's "Continental Op."
Nevertheless, just as Hammett's literary reputation rests on one book above all, his movie legacy rests principally on one picture. John Huston adapted The Maltese Falcon (1941) with scrupulous fidelity to the book, knowing just where to cut and what to emphasize. He drew impeccable performances from a dark, wounded Humphrey Bogart, somehow perfect as Hammett's blond Sam Spade, and all the rest of his cast. It's a flawless movie, and film noir is unthinkable without it.
Film noir is shorthand for those doom-laden, black-and-white but mostly black crime stories that suddenly appeared on American screens in the 1940s. A few critics insist film noir started with an obscure, enjoyable Peter Lorre movie called The Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), whose script the novelist Nathanael West helped write, but almost everybody else traces it to The Maltese Falcon (1941). This lineage makes Hammett at least the godfather of every noir, from Double Indemnity (1944) to The Usual Suspects (1995), whose ending is unmistakably lifted by screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie from Hammett's great long story "The Big Knock-Over."
So what movie earned Hammett his Academy Award nomination? Try Watch on the Rhine (1943), which he and Lillian Hellman adapted from her play, and which nobody would call his best work. Its script deservedly lost the Oscar to Casablanca (1942). Perhaps Dashiell Hammett's most iconic monument rests in a place of honor at the Copyright Department of the Library of Congress: a black bird, machined as a prop for The Maltese Falcon, made of lead but worth its weight in gold.