Samuel Dashiell Hammett was born in Maryland in 1894. In his early teens, he left school and worked at various jobs. Finally at age twenty-one he took a job as an operative with the Pinkerton Detective Agency.
After World War I began, Hammett signed up to serve in the Motor Ambulance Service, but during the war he contracted tuberculosis, an illness that was to give him problems for the rest of his life. While he was undergoing treatment he met Josephine Dolan, a nurse. They married and had two children. The marriage unraveled fairly quickly due to Hammett’s alcohol abuse and womanizing.
After Hammett’s release from the Army, he went back to his job at Pinkerton. The work he did clearly stirred his imagination. Popular mystery fiction in the early 1920s was reasonably genteel and the solution to a crime was reached through the intellectual endeavors of the sleuth. Hammett developed a much grittier type of story, engendering what is now commonly known as “hard-boiled” crime fiction.
After publishing a story or two in other places, Hammett realized that his writing was more suited to the pulp crime magazines and his short story, “Arson Plus” was published in the now legendary, Black Mask. This is the story in which Hammett (writing under the name Peter Collinson) first introduced the Continental Op, the nameless, streetwise private investigator employed by the San Francisco office of the Continental Detective Agency. The “Op” came straight at problems with a matter-of-fact attitude and he spoke in the vernacular of the regular Joe. He became wildly popular with readers since he was so different from the characters they were used to having as heroes. In a very short time the Continental Op stories were published under his own name, and Dashiell Hammett was building quite a reputation as a writer.
In 1928 Hammett published what we would now call a thriller, Red Harvest, a novel based on a couple of Continental Op stories that had some commonality. In less than a year, he published his second “Op” novel, The Dain Curse.
The novels developed a strong following, so Hammett decided to try a new lead character. In 1930 he introduced Sam Spade as a dishonest, yet idealistic private detective in the masterful The Maltese Falcon, famous for its red herring as well as its story line of greed and deceit.
Shortly after, he met playwright Lillian Hellman. The relationship was often tempestuous due to the same personal flaws that destroyed Hammett’s marriage, but the two remained close for thirty years until Hammett’s death.
In his topnotch post about Raymond Chandler on Criminal Element, Jake Hinkson wrote that Chandler developed the “classic private eye into its purest form” and was “directly inspired” by the Continental Op and Sam Spade stories written by Dashiell Hammett. Chandler wasn’t the only one to be inspired by Hammett’s work, and Hammett still had more work to do.
Hammett’s final novel, The Thin Man, was published in 1934. Although the film version was received with great applause and led to a number of sequels, Hammett had no real part in writing the films. Some Hollywood studios hired him to rework other people’s scripts and he continued to write for radio.
After two failed attempts at movies based on The Maltese Falcon, the combination of John Huston’s script and direction and Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal of Sam Spade produced a highly successful adaptation and, for good measure, used the book title as the movie title, which the first two movies did not.
Since he finally felt financially secure, Hammett began devoting himself to left-wing political causes. World War II intervened. Although he was in poor health and considered to be a disabled veteran from World War I, Hammett managed to join the army, entering as a private and being discharged as a sergeant.
After the war he became president of the New York Civil Rights Congress and posted bail for some accused Communists. When Hammett refused to name the people who gave him the bail money, he was put in jail for five months and upon release found that the IRS had a lien against him for more than one hundred thousand dollars. He was then called as an “unfriendly witness” at the McCarthy hearings.
The last decade of his life was wracked with health and financial problems. Hammett lived in a small cottage in New York and, as his health deteriorated Lillian Hellman moved in to care for him during his waning years. He died in 1961 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, as befitting a veteran of both world wars.
1930 first edition book cover photo courtesy of FullTable.com.
Terrie Farley Moran’s recent collection of short stories, THE AWARENESS and other deadly tales, is currently available in e-format for the Nook and for the Kindle. Terrie blogs at Women of Mystery. www.womenofmystery.net She is presently writing a cozy mystery novel set in Southwest Florida.