Dashiell Hammett is the most popular and influential writer of detective and pulp stories in American history. All of his novels were made into successful Hollywood movies including The Maltese Falcon, which is number twenty-three on the list of the 100 Greatest American Films. His realistic, hard-boiled writing became the standard for crime fiction which stills exists today.

Early Life and Pinkerton

Samuel Dashiell Hammett was born to father Richard Hammett and mother Annie Hammett on May 27, 1894, in a small town in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. Richard was a farmer and a politician, notorious for loving his alcohol and women. In 1900, Richard made the poor decision to switch from a democrat to a republican in an attempt to run for public office; this made him so unpopular that he was forced to sell his farm and move. He and his son stayed, briefly, in Philadelphia before moving again to Baltimore. Here, Richard became a sales representative and Sam began his education. His mother, Annie, encouraged reading above all else, and Sam soon learned to love literature.

In 1908, Richard became very ill. This forced Sam out of Baltimore Polytechnic and into the working world. After jumping between several random manual labor jobs, he got a position as a clerk in the Baltimore branch of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. It was here that Hammett would be saturated in the influences that would shape his writing later in life. In the course of two short years, he would move from a lowly clerk to a street operative. It was because of this profession that Hammett would travel across the country, researching and preventing crimes. Hammett has even said that he was in Butte, Montana, in 1917 when Frank Little, the International Workers of the World representative, was lynched.

Hammett, swayed by the massive amount of propaganda promoting the war, joined the Army in 1918. His stint as a sergeant of the ambulance corps was short-lived, however, when he contracted tuberculosis during the flu epidemic. The next few years of Hammett’s life were spent in countless hospitals in a constant circle of convalescence and relapse. During this painfully long time spent recuperating, Hammett received disability pension from the Veteran’s Bureau and started his relationship with a nurse, Jose Dolan.

San Francisco

Jose Dolan and Hammett married and moved to San Francisco in July of 1921, where their child, Mary, was born three months later. Hammett began working for Pinkerton again immediately after settling in California. Unfortunately, a year later he was forced to resign, for the last time, because of the increasingly serious battle with tuberculosis.

Often bed-ridden, Hammett periodically visited a Veterans Bureau-sponsored writing course. This inspired him to begin writing. While in bed, he started writing a large number of short stories, which would begin to bombard every magazine in the area, especially the pulps. By October 1922, quite a few of these magazines began to print his stories. A year later, the Black Mask, accepted Hammett’s first Continental Operative story, Arson Plus. The most striking characteristic of his stories was their realism; Hammett was inspired to write detective stories because all of the ones he ever read were horribly unreal. His stories would later come to define the genre.

The story published in the Black Mask was the first of a series that would last three years, written by “Peter Collinson”. The main character was an unnamed, short, and overweight detective, who came to be known as The Continental Op. This hero was the first realistic detective hero in American fiction, drawing off of Hammett’s Pinkerton experiences. In the next two years, Hammett would develop a small cult following of his writing before he even published a novel.

1925 was the most difficult year of Hammett’s life. Early on, he would battle in his most dangerous bout with tuberculosis during his life. The Veteran’s Bureau had been lagging behind in their payments, and Jose was pregnant again. In order to make more money, Hammett began writing for his friend Albert Samuelsadvertising company. In May 1926, Josephine was born and Hammett had to move away in order to save the newborn’s health. Although he stayed in San Francisco, he was poor, very sick, and completely alone.

The Writer

When his tuberculosis disappeared, for good, in 1927, Hammett attempted to return to Jose. The next year and a half were a constant cycle of breakups and reconciliations, until finally in 1929 Jose left for good. This year was also the year that Hammett’s first novel, Red Harvest, was published. It received positive reviews and earned Hammett more respect because of his new novel form. In the next two years, Hammett released more novels: The Dain Curse, The Maltese Falcon, and The Glass Key. It was The Maltese Falcon that would gain national recognition and become known as one of the top novels of the century. These four novels were the pinnacle of Hammett’s achievement; he would release only one more novel during the rest of his life.

In 1929, Hammett moved to New York, where he became part of the celebrity nightlife. He soon became as well known for his drinking as for his writing. A year later, Hammett moved to Hollywood, tempted by the big salaries offered there. He began writing screenplays, and started a relationship with Lillian Hellman. Hellman was an aspiring screenwriter, who soon achieved success after coming under the tutelage of Hammett. Hammett earned large amounts of money through selling the movie rights of his books, all of which were made into movies. The Glass Key alone sold for $25,000. Somehow, however, through Hammett’s drinking, parties, gambling, and prostitutes, he lost almost all of it.

Hammett acquired a contract from MGM Studios in 1932, which resulted only in the screenplay City Streets. Because of the distractions of Hollywood, which Hammett was so helpless against, not much work was completed during this time. He finished his last novel, The Thin Man, in 1933 and almost immediately sold the movie rights, desperate for the money but unwilling to work. Hammett was hired by William Randolph Hearst the next year to write a comic strip entitled Dashiell Hammett's Secret Agent X-9. Hammett’s work was weak and hurried, but his name alone, now attached to several successful Hollywood movies, was enough to sell.

Journalism and World War II

The next eight years of Hammett’s life were spent wasting the large sums of money he had received from Hollywood and becoming an active member of the Communist party. For a while, Hammett tried his hand at journalism, writing mostly about the Spanish Civil War and Nazi Germany, supporting anti-fascist groups. His publishers, though, soon became angry and demanded more work. In an attempt to motivate himself to write, Hammett gave up drinking for about a year. This plan failed; all that resulted from his time away from the booze was a severe depression.

Although he was originally opposed to World War II, Hammett had a change of heart and joined the Army in 1941. A 47-year-old alcoholic, he was rejected twice before being accepted and starting his army life anew. His popularity alone allowed him to rise to the rank of corporal. The less biased officials of the army realized how incompetent he was, however, and stationed him in a remote spot in the Aleutian Islands. Here he wrote the Arkadian, a newspaper exclusively for the soldiers stationed in Alaska, and The Battle of the Aleutians, a history of the islands.

After he returned from an uneventful military career, Hammett regressed to his old ways. His daughter Mary joined him on the East Coast, and they soon became drinking buddies. Lillian left him because of his excessive drinking, but returned later that year when Hammett’s health failed. After being warned that any more alcohol would surely kill him, Hammett gave up the drink for good.

McCarthyism and the End

Hammett continued with small writing assignments, mostly to appease his publishers and make some income. During the aftermath of the war, he became a strong target for the FBI because of his open support of Communism. When Joseph McCarthy unleashed his whirlwind of a campaign against communism, Hammett was questioned but released. Soon afterwards, however, he came before the House Un-American Activities Committee. As a trustee for a bail fund for communists, he was brought under investigation when four communists skipped their bail. His house was raided by the FBI, and Hammett was forced to appear before a US District Court to determine who the subscribers of his fund were. When Hammett decided to take the fifth, he was sent off to jail.

Six months later, Hammett was released from prison. He was greeted by the Internal Revenue Service, who presented him with a bill for $100,000. When all his income was seized, Hammett moved in with a friend in upstate New York. He taught creative writing at Jefferson School of Social Science to make a living, and in 1953 McCarthy deemed his books unsafe for public libraries. After a heart attack in 1955, Hammett lived a subdued life until his death on January 13, 1961, of lung cancer. As a veteran of war, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Complete Works:

Red Harvest (1929)
The Dain Course (1929)
The Maltese Falcon (1930)
The Glass Key (1931)
City Streets (Screenplay 1931)
Creeps by Night (1933)
Woman in the Dark (1933)
Seret Agent X-9 (1934)
The Thin Man (1934)
Dashiell Hammett omnibus (1935)
Mister Dynamite (Screenplay 1935)
After the Thin Man (Screenplay 1936)
Another Thin Man (Screenplay 1939)
The Complete Dashiell Hammett (1942)
Blood Money (1943)
Watch on the Rhine (Screenplay 1943)
The Adventures of Sam Spade (1944)
The Battle of the Aleutians (1944)
The Continental Op (1945)
The Return of the Continental Op (1945)
Hammett Homicides (1946)
Dead Yellow Women (1947)
Nightmare Town (1948)
The Creeping Siamese (1950)
A Man Called Thin (1962)
The Big Knockover (1966)
The Continental Op: More Stories from the Big Knockover (1967)
Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett 1921-1960 (2001)

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