Dashiell Hammett

Friday Jan 30 2009
by Jack Bumsted

Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) – the name was spelled with two Ls, two Ms and two Ts, was born in rural Maryland, the son of a farmer.  His family later moved to Philadelphia and Baltimore.  Hammett began his working career at the age of 14, and after holding a variety of jobs settled down around 1915 as an “operative” for the Pinkerton Detective Agency.  During the First World War he served at the front as an ambulance driver, and in 1918 contracted Spanish flu and tuberculosis, from which he never fully recovered.  He returned to Pinkerton’s in San Francisco in 1919, and gradually left the business as his writing career became more successful.  

By the end of the 1920s he was the leading writer in the American pulp magazines, particularly BLACK MASK MAGAZINE, and his spare style had become iconic.  His active writing career was a relatively short one, culminating in five novels between 1929 and 1934.  Thereafter, he lived off his reputation, working on radio and in the movies, and including one spell writing for a comic book company (where he developed SECRET AGENT X-9).  His earlier stories were reprinted a number of times, his stories, novellas, and novels were made into more than twenty motion pictures, and influenced perhaps as many as a hundred more, mostly B features (the low-budget movies that made up the second half of double features in cinemas); Hammett’s output was the backbone of the “film noir” of the 1940s.  

The characters he created in THE THIN MAN (1934) served as the basis for a series of MGM movies starring William Powell and Myrna Loy and later between 1957 and 1960 as the basis for a television series starring Peter Lawford (who was related by marriage to the Kennedy clan).  The character of Sam Spade he created in THE MALTESE FALCON was filmed three times in the 1930s, the last time played by Humphrey Bogart.  Hammett also created the nameless “Continental Op” and Brad Runyan (“The Fat Man”) who appeared in one film and was one of the leading private eyes on the radio in the 1950s.

Hammett’s influence extended well beyond the characters he created for the media, of course, affecting both the language of the genre and its very sensibilities.  Raymond Chandler was perhaps the major exponent of Hammett’s influence on the language of realistic American fiction, insisting that he had returned the American language to the common people.  It was a language of slangy dialogue and street argot, almost entirely free from descriptive fine writing.  In one story he described a woman: “Her eyes were blue, her mouth red, her teeth white, and she had a nose.  Without getting steamed up over the details, she was nice.”   Equally important, the period of Hammett’s greatest success, between 1925 and 1950, was an era in which the United States, especially in its major cities, was dominated by Gangsters and urban corruption. Hammett had worked in this world, understood it completely, and he reflected it in his writing. He wrote without sentimentality about an American society of greed, brutality, violence, and treachery, in which hard-as-nails private eyes were the only defence against the corruption and then only when they opposed violence with violence.

Not surprisingly, given his penchant for action and distaste of the corrupt world of his day, Hammett was a supporter of left-wing causes and ultimately became a member of the Communist Party.  This was not a problem through World War II, when despite his age and infirmities, he managed to get in the U.S. Army and served in the Aleutian Islands (as Sarah Palin would remind us, not far from Russia).  After all, Russia was an ally of the United States during the war.  But afterwards, American public opinion turned against Communism, and the American Congress engaged in a series of witchhunts against Communists in the American entertainment industry.  Hammett was summoned in 1951 to testify in the court trial of four Communists accused of conspiracy against the United States government, especially to reveal the names of those who had contributed to a fund of which he was officially treasurer.  He took the fifth amendment.   As a result he was sent to prison for five months, and was released only because of his ill health.  Serious efforts were made to blacklist his writings, and he was persecuted (and prosecuted) by the American tax people.  His income, most of which came in the form of royalty and residuals, was attached for several years by the federal government, and the State Department kept his books off the bookshelves of government-supported libraries at home and abroad.  At one point, a network radio programme featuring Sam Spade and starring Howard Duff was forced to change the name of its private detective to “Charlie Wild” in order to remain on the air.  

Hammett had married early and had fathered several children, but had separated from his wife and family during the 1920s.  During the last thirty years of his life he was involved in an ongoing tempestuous relationship with the writer Lillian Hellman.  The relationship was both personal and professional.   She cared for him in her New York apartment for the last five years of his life.   Given Hammett’s controversial life and his public relationship with Lillian Hellman, it is not surprising that both his life and his life with Hellman have been the subject of a number of books and at least one TV movie.   There is also an opera.  These productions often mythologized and sentimentalized their subjects, who – like many creative people – were incredibly self-absorbed and selfish.

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