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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

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Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) - wrote his first fiction under the pseudonym Peter Collinson


American novelist who also worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood. Hammett's best known books include The Maltese Falcon (1930), filmed three times. It introduced detective Sam Spade who is investigating the murder of his colleague, detective Archer. Spade finds himself involved with an odd assortment of characters, all searching for a black statue of a bird. Among them are the gorgeous redhead Brigid O'Shaughnessy, her employer, Fat Man Casper Gutman, Joel Cairo, an agent of Gutman, and Wilmer Cook, a nervous, trigger-happy bodyguard.

"Samuel Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting V under the more flexible V of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another smaller V. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The V motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down – from high flat temples – in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan." (from The Maltese Falcon)

With Raymond Chandler Hammett represented the early realistic vein in detective stories. His tough heroes confront violence with full knowledge of its corrupting potential. In his novels Hammett painted a mean picture of the American society, where greed, brutality, and treachery are the major driving forces behind human actions.

Dashiell Hammett was born in St. Mary's County, Maryland, the son of Richard Hammett, a farmer and politician. Hammett's mother, Annie Bond Dashiell, was trained as a nurse, but was at home most of the time looking after her three children. The family moved to Philadelphia, and then to Baltimore. Hammett studied at the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute but left school at the age of 14 to help support the family. He worked as a newsboy, freight clerk, labourer, messenger, stevedore, and advertising manager before joining the Baltimore office of the Pinkerton Detective Agency as an operator. In Butte, Montana, he was offered money to kill the IWWW labour organizer Frank Little, who was later lynched. After the murder, Hammett's political views became more radical and he resigned from Pinkerton's first time.

During World War I Hammett served a sergeant in an ambulance corps. At that time the worldwide Spanish influenza epidemic spread fast, and especially in military installations. Hammett contracted tuberculosis. "I have always had good health until I contracted influenza, complicated by bronchial pneumonia treatment," Hammett told his doctor in 1919. He spent the rest of the war in hospital, and for much of his life suffered from ill health. He rejoined the agency and worked then intermittently to earn extra money – Hammett's pension was small and he now had his own family to support. Most of Hammett's income during 1922-1926 came from writing advertising copy for a San Francisco jewelry store. At this time the investigator known as Continental Op was introduced in the author's stories.

Hammett's first short story appeared in the magazine Black Mask on 1 October 1923, and his fiction writing career as novelist ended in 1934. In Black Mask Hammett became along with Erle Stanley Gardner one of its most popular writers. Under the pseudonym Peter Collinson, Hammett introduced a short, overweight, unnamed detective employed by the San Francisco branch of the Continental Detective Agency, who became known as The Continental Op.

In the three dozen stories between 1929 and 1930, featuring the tough and dedicated Op, Hammett gave shape to the first believable detective hero in American fiction. Drawing on his Pinkerton experiences, Hammett created a private eye, whose methods of detection are completely convincing, and whose personality has more than one dimension. Op stories also appeared in hardcover form. Red Harvest (1929) was a loosely constructed story about corruption and gangsters, set in 'Poisonville', and in The Dain Curse (1929) Op unravels a mystery involving jewel theft, religious cults, a family curse, a bombing, and a ghost.

However, in 1929 Hammett turned his attention to a new private eye, Sam Spade, who made his initial appearance in Black Mask in September 1929. Next year the work appeared in book form. Hammett's language was unsentimental, journalistic; moral judgments were left to the reader. The first-person narration of the Op stories is left behind and Hammett views the detective protagonist in the book from the outside. A beautiful woman, Brigid O'Shaughnessy, comes to the office of Spade and his partner Miles Archer. She asks them to trail a Floyd Thursby. Archer is murdered. His wife was seeking a divorce to marry Spade. Joel Cairo offers Spade a reward for the recovery of a statuette, the 'Maltese Falcon'. Also Casper Gutman, a fat man, seeks it, with the help of Wilmer, an evil young man. An imitation in lead is found and Spade calls for the police to arrest Gutman, Cairo, and Wilmer. Brigid, who has been involved in the quest for the falcon, confesses that she killed Archer. Spade doesn't protect her from the consequences, but turns her in. "Listen. When a man's partner's killed, he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it." (Bogart in The Maltese Falcon). This philosophy also marked Hammett's attitudes when he was questioned about his Communist contacts – he did not reveal them.

In The Maltese Falcon Spade became the personification of the American private eye, thanks in no small degree to Humphrey Bogart's portrayal of him in the 1941 screen adaptation of the novel. However, Hollywood had already found Hammett's work much earlier on. Roadhouse Nights, directed by Hobart Henley, was based on Hammett's Red Harvest, and released by Paramount in 1930. The Maltese Falcon was filmed for the first time in 1931 and then in 1936 under the title Satan Met a Lady, directed by William Dieterle and starring Bette Davis. The falcon was changed into a gem-filled ram's horn. John Huston's adaptation from 1941 is the most famous. "But we were all having such a good time together on Falcon that, night after shooting, Bogie, Peter Lorre, Ward Bond, Mary Astor and I would go over to the Lakeside Country Club. We'd have a few drinks, then a buffet supper, and stay on till midnight. We all thought we were doing something good, but no one had any idea that The Maltese Falcon would be a great success and eventually take its place as a film classic." (John Huston in An Open Book, 1981)

In 1943 Hammett had screenplay credits for the adaptation of Watch On Rhine by Lillian Hellman. She had become Hammett's companion in the 1930s. Hammett was first married to nurse Josephine Dolan, whom he met in the Cushman Institute in the early 1920s. When Hammett was transferred to the hospital at Camp Kearney near San Diego, he started to write to her regularly. "This is the first time I ever felt that way about a woman; perhaps it's the first time I have ever really loved a woman. That sounds funny but it may be the truth." (from Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett 1921-1960, edited by Richard Layman with Julie M. Rivett, 2001) Hammett and Josephine were married in 1921.

After the birth of his second daughter, Hammett's illness partly ended his family life – doctors warned Josephine of the risk of infection, and she took a house north of San Francisco, where Hammett visited during weekends. Formally they divorced in 1937. Josephine left her work as a nurse and Hammett sent his family money, more or less regularly. Reciprocally Josephine sent him her picture, in which she did not smile.

"Ned Beaumont stood up. He picked up his overcoat. He took his cap out of his overcoat pocket and, holding it in one hand, his overcoat over the other arm, said seriously: 'You'll be sorry.' The he walked out in a dignified manner. The Kid's rasping laughter and Lee's shriller hooting followed him out." (from The Glass Key)

The Glass Key (1930), about munincipal politics at its lowest, was apparently Hammett's favorite among his novels. The central character, Ned Beaumont, was partly a self-portrait: a tall, thin, tuberculosis-ridden gambler and heavy drinker. The Thin Man (1934), Hammett's last novel, presented Nick Charles, a former detective who had married a rich woman, Nora Charles. Her character was based on Lillian Hellman. The book gained a commercial success and inspired a series of adaptations for film, radio, and TV. With Alex Raymond, the creator and illustrator of Flash Gordon and Rip Kirby, Hammett cooperated in 1934 on Secret Agent X-9, a comic strip. The character had no name, and Hammett did not clearly define, if the Agent X-9 was a spy, a detective, or a G-man.

Hammett's earnings from his books and their spin-offs allowed him to continue drinking and womanizing. After signing an agreement with MGM, he wrote at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Los Angeles the first draft for After the Thin Man: The Thin Man Sequel. Directed by W.S. Van Dyke and William Powell and Myrna Lot starring again, it was released with excellent reviews in December 1936. Another Thin Man was released in November 1938. The studio rejected Hammett's idea for a fourth Nick and Nora Charles movie, and cancealed his contract. Hunt Stromberg produced three more Thin Man movies; the screenplays were not written by Hammett. 

"Well, Hammett and I had a good time together. Most of it, not all of it. We were amused by each other." (Lillian Hellman in Playwright at Work, ed. George Plimpton, 2000)

In the 1930s Hammett became politically active. He joined the Communist Party and was a fierce opponent of Nazism. However, when Hemingway and a number of other writers went to Spain to help the Republicans in the Civil War (1936-39), Hammett remained in the U.S., but helped veterans after their return from the war. at that time Hellman's star was rising. Hammett himself was drinking heavily and had problems with his writing, but his support was crucial for Hellman's own career. She had success as a playwright, travelled in Spain, and had an affair with John Melby, a diplomat.

During World War II tubercular Hammett served three years in the US Army, editing a newspaper for the troops in the Aleutian Islands. This was perhaps the last, relatively happy period in his life. In 1948 he was vice-chairman of the Civil Rights Congress, an organization that the Attorney General and F.B.I. deemed subversive. He tried to start writing again, hired a secretary, but managed only to produce some notes.

For his political beliefs Hammett became a target during McCarthy's anti-Communist crusade. Before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee, headed by the Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, he invoked the Fifth Amandment when asked if he was then or had been a member of the Communist party. Rather than testify at the trial of four communists accused of conspiracy, he went to prison in 1951 for five months. In addition, Hammett was blacklisted and when Internal Revenue Service claimed that he owed a huge amount in tax deficiencies, the federal government attacked his income. For a while the State Department kept his books away from the shelves of American libraries overseas. However, President Eisenhower told a news conference that he thought "someone got frightened" and he would not himself have removed the books.

The rest of his life Hammett lived in and around New York, teaching creative writing in Jefferson School of Social Science from 1946 to 1956. He rented a small house in Katonah, where books piled on chairs, shelfs, and the floor, and his desk was full of unanswered mail. Lillian Hellman cared for him in her Park Avenue apartment from 1956. She wasn't afraid of contracting tuberculosis, but was aware of Hammett's venereal diseases he had on occasion. Hammett died penniless of lung cancer on January 10, 1961. "Hammett refused all medication, all aid from nurses and doctors, in some kind of mysterious wariness," recalled Hellman in an acticle (The New York Review of Books, March 3, 1966).

For further reading: An Unfinished Woman by L. Hellman (1969); Pentimento by L. Hellman (1973); Scoundrel Time by L. Hellman (1976); Beams Falling: The Art of Dashiell Hammett by Peter Wolfe (1980); Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett by Richard Layman (1981); Dashiell Hammett: A Life by Diane Johnson (1983); Hammett: A Life at the Edge by W.F. Nolan (1983); Dashiell Hammett by D. Dooley (1985); Dashiell Hammett by J. Symons (1985); Private Investigations: Novels of Dashiell Hammett by S. Gregory (1985); World Authors 1900-1950, Vol. 2, ed. M. Seymour-Smith and A.C. Kimmens (1996) - See also "hard-boiled" writers: Horace McCoy, Jonathan Latimer, Mickey Spillane. - Trivia: According to an old joke, Hammett studied Kant's philosophy early at the age of 13. - American writers in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s: James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, John Fante, Daniel Fuchs, Horace McCoy, Clifford Odets, Maxwell Anderson, Dorothy Parker, John Don Passos, Theodore Dreiser, Nathanael West, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald. - Note: Hammett was portrayed by Jason Robards, Jr. in the Julia (1977), directed by Fred Zinnemann, based on Lillian Hellman's book Pentimento. Another film, Hammett (1982), directed by Wim Wenders and based on Joe Gores's novel (1975), depicts Hammett in the 1920s as an ex-Pinkerton detective and now a struggling writer. The director-screenwriter Samuel Fuller made a cameo appearance.

Selected bibliography:

  • Red Harvest, 1929
    - Veristä satoa (suom. Kalevi Nyytäjä, 1976)
    - Films: Roadhouse Nights, 1930, prod. Paramount Pictures, story by Ben Hecht, dir. Hobart Henley, starring Helen Morgan, Charles Ruggles and Fred Kohler; La ciudad maldita, 1978, prod. Films Dara, Produzioni Europee Associati (PEA), dir. Juan Bosch, starring Chet Bacon, Diana Lorys and Roberto Camardiel
  • The Dain Curse, 1929
    - Dainin suvun kirous (suom. Kalevi Nyytäjä, 1975)
    - TV mini-series in 1978, prod. Martin Poll Productions, dir. E.W. Swackhamer, starring James Coburn (as Hamilton Nash), Hector Elizondo and Jason Miller
  • The Maltese Falcon, 1930
    - Maltan haukka (suom. Jouko Linturi, 1955; Kalevi Nyytäjä, 1974)
    - Films: 1931, dir. Roy Del Ruth, starring Bebe Daniels, Ricardo Cortez (as Sam Spade) and Dudley Digges; 1936 Satan Met a Lady, dir. by William Dieterle, starring Bette Davis, Warren William (as Ted Shane) and Alison Skipworth; 1941, dir. by John Huston, starring Humphrey Bogart (as Sam Spade), Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet. Quote: 'What is it? - 'The stuff that dreams are made of.' (Last line). A parody of Huston's film, The Black Bird, was made in 1975, directed David Giler, starring George Segal (as Sam Spade Jr.), Stéphane Audran and Lionel Stander. From the original cast appeared Lee Patrick and Elisha Cook Jr.
  • The Glass Key, 1931
    - Lasiavain (suom. Kalevi Nyytäjä, 1973)
    - Films: 1935, prod. Paramount Pictures, dir. Frank Tuttle, starring George Raft (as Ed Beaumont), Claire Dodd and Edward Arnold; 1942, prod. Paramount Pictures, screenplay Jonathan Latimer, dir. Stuart Heisler, starring Alan Ladd (as Ed Beaumont), Veronica Lake, Brian Donlevy, Bonita Granville; 1949, drama in Studio One TV series, dir. George Zachary, starring Donald Briggs, Lawrence Fletcher and Jean Carson; Bande, 1986, prod. Tallinnfilm (Estonia), dir. Arvo Kruusement, starring Tõnu Kark (as Ned Beamount), Aarne Üksküla and Rein Malmsten
  • Creeps by Night, 1931 (editor)
  • Woman in the Dark, 1933
    - Nainen pimeässä (suom. Reijo Lehtonen, 1990)
  • Secret Agent X-9, 1934 (Vol. 1: Riches or poverty. Things Happen Fast; Vol. 2: The Iron Hand. Mother or Rich Aunt? Girl to Decide in Court; illustrated by Alex Raymond)
    - Salainen agentti X-9 (suom. Soile Kaukoranta, 1984)
    - Uncredited film adaptation in 1945, 13 episodes, prod.
    Universal Pictures, dir. Lewis D. Collins, Ray Taylor, starring Lloyd Bridges (as Phil Corrigan/Secret Agent X-9), Keye Luke and Jan Wiley
  • The Thin Man, 1934
    - Varjomies (suom. Eero Huhtala, 1973)
    - Thin Man films starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles: The Thin Man, dir. W.S. Van Dyke (1934); After the Thin Man, dir. W.S. Van Dyke (1936); Another Thin Man, dir. W.S. Dyke (1939); Shadow of the Thin Man, dir. W.S. Van Dyke (1941); The Thin Man Goes Home, dir. Richard Thorpe (1944); The Song of the Thin Man, dir. Edward Buzzell (1947); TV series 1957–1959, starring Peter Lawford, Phyllis Kirk and Jack Albertson TV film Nick and Nora in Wide World Mystery, 1975, dir. Seymour Burns, starring Craig Stevens and Jo Ann Pflug
  • Dashiell Hammett Omnibus, 1935
  • The Complete Dashiell Hammett, 1942
  • Blood Money, 1943
  • The Adventures of Sam Spade, 1944 (edited by Fred Dannay)
    - Mies nimeltä Spade ja muita kertomuksia (suom. Kalevi Nyytäjä, 1994)
  • The Battle of the Aleutians, 1944 (illustrated by Robert Colodny)
  • The Continental Op, 1945
    - Kymmenes johtolanka (suom. Rauno Ekholm, 1986)
  • The Adventures of Sam Spade and Other Stories, 1945
  • The Return of the Continental Op, 1945
  • Hammett Homicides, 1946 ( collected and edited, with introduction and critical notes, by Ellery Queen)
  • Dead Yellow Women, 1947
  • Nightmare Town, 1948
    - Painajaiskaupunki (suom. Kalevi Nyytäjä, 2004)
  • The Creeping Siamese, 1950 (collected and edited with introduction by Ellery Queen)
  • A Man Named Thin, 1962 (collected and edited, with introd. and critical notes by Ellery Queen)
  • The Big Knockover: Selected Stories and Short Novels, 1966 (edited by Lillian Hellman)
    - Kylmät jäähyväiset (suomentanut Jorma-Veikko Sappinen, 2010)
  • The Dashiell Hammett Story Omnibus, 1966 (edited and with an introduction by Lillian Hellman)
  • The Continental Op: More Stories from The Big Knockover, 1967
  • The Continental Op, 1974 ( edited by Steven Marcus)
  • Dashiell Hammett’s Secret Agent X-9, 1983 (edited by Tony Sparafucile; with a special X-9 story by Leslie Charteris)
  • Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett 1921-1960, 2001 (edited by Richard Layman with Julie M. Rivett; introduction by Josephine Hammett Marshall)
  • Lost Stories, 2005 (introduction by Joe Gores)
  • Detective Stories, 2009
  • Return of the Thin Man, 2012 (two never-before-published novellas featuring Nick & Nora Charles; edited by Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett)

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