SAMUEL DASHIELL HAMMETT
(May 27, 1894—January 10, 1961)
“Three times I have been mistaken for a Prohibition agent, but never had any trouble clearing myself.”
– Dashiell Hammett, from the “Memoirs of a Private Detective” (Smart Set magazine, March 1923)
Hammett was a hard-drinking, genius of a writer who left us with five outstanding works of detective fiction novels, many short stories, and the hard-boiled detective character who has been much imitated. No other writer has quite been able to conjure up the likes of Sam Spade, the Continental Op or Nick Charles. Hammett is widely regarded as the finest mystery writer of all time.
He grew up in Baltimore and Philadelphia, quitting school when he was 13 years old to take a series of odd jobs. From 1915 to1921 he worked for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, first as a clerk and later as an operative. The experience and knowledge gained from this job influenced much of his fiction. He enlisted in the army twice; once in 1918 when he joined the Ambulance Corps and subsequently came down with the Spanish Flu and Tuberculosis, and yet again in 1942 although he was by then in his mid-forties. Despite this service he was brought on trial during the Joe McCarthy era for being suspected of un-American activities, and sent to prison for refusing to answer questions put to him during the hearings.
Early in his life he met Josephine Annis Dolan, a nurse at the Public Health Service hospital in Tacoma, Washington while he was being treated for his near-fatal case of Tuberculosis. They married and had two children, daughters Josephine and Mary Jane. He was a loving father, but he had philandering ways. When the family was later separated by Health Services (because of his diseased lungs), Dashiell and his wife were allowed to see each other only on weekends, and the marriage faltered. He soon had a romance with Nell Martin, a writer, which lasted about a year. He dedicated the book The Glass Key to her.
Then in 1930 along came Lillian Hellman. She was a script reader for MGM, also determined to be a writer, and when she and Hammett met there was instant attraction. They began a love affair which last 30 years until his death in 1961. She was the essence of the character Nora in his book The Thin Man, and if you are familiar at all with the intellect and charm of that character, you will understand why Lillian won Hammett’s heart. Independent, witty and wise, she was able to weather all of the pinnacles and deep valleys of their shared life.
Hammett’s first published story “The Parthian Shot” appeared in Smart Set magazine in October 1922. But his breakthrough began when his detective stories began being published in Black Mask, a popular mystery and crime fiction magazine. His invention of the character the Continental Op, a small fat man in his forties who went by no other name as he worked for the Continental Detective Agency, set him on his course to become a renowned crime fiction writer.
All of his novels were published by Alfred A. Knopf. The first was Red Harvest, published on February 1, 1929. Originally titled Poisonville by the author, it was changed before publication at the behest of the publisher. This was followed by The Dain Curse (July 19, 1929). Both of these books featured the Continental Op as his detective character. On February 14, 1930, Knopf published The Maltese Falcon, which was to become Hammett’s most famous work. The book was a huge success, and was made into a film three times by Warner Brothers. In 1931 it was titled The Maltese Falcon but also known as Dangerous Female, directed by Roy Del Ruth, and starred Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels. In 1936 it was filmed as Satan Met a Lady, directed by William Dieterle and starring Warren William and Bette Davis; finally in 1941 and again under the original title it was directed by John Huston and the cast included Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, and Peter Lorre. This last film has of course become a classic, and the first edition of The Maltese Falcon is one of the most coveted and elusive items in modern first edition collecting. The Glass Key (April 24, 1931) and The Thin Man (January 8, 1934) were also published by Alfred A. Knopf. All of these novels are considered collectable. The Thin Man was a great success and spawned six movies starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles. These movies were extremely popular in their time and are still a real pleasure to watch today. The intelligent, humorous banter between Nick and Nora seems more fresh and sparkling than any conversation between couples in modern movies. Although several volumes of his short stories were subsequently published, The Thin Man was Hammett’s last novel.
He had experienced a period of marked success and popularity, money, notoriety and friends, but his health went into decline and he longed to do a different kind of writing. His political leanings had caused him great difficulties. Toward the end of his life he was living as a recluse in a small cottage in Katonah, New York. He was not eating, barely even drinking his martini each day. He was still loved and cared for by Lillian, but he became almost catatonic, although toward the end of his life he was working on Tulip, a novel that remained unfinished.
In the introduction to the book Dashiell Hammett: Five Complete Novels, Lillian Hellman wrote:
“I have been asked many times over the years why he did not write another novel after The Thin Man. I do not know. I think, but I only think, I know a few of the reasons: he wanted to do a new kind of work; he was sick for many of those years and getting sicker. But he kept his work, and his plans for work, in angry privacy and even I would not have been answered if I had ever asked, and maybe because I never asked is why I was with him until the last day of his life...But five novels is no small amount to leave behind and I hope he would have been pleased that they are all together again.”
Hammett died of lung cancer in New York at Lenox Hill Hospital on January 10, 1961. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.