Dashiell Hammett

All about Dashiell Hammett and Sam Spade, bio, pictures, links to books

Humphrey Bogart  Sam Spade

Humphrey Bogart

Sam Spade

Samuel Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) is recognized as the first master of hard-boiled detective fiction. His lean writing style, cynical characters and complex plots brought a new energy to pulp magazines then went on to define the genre in movies, radio and television where the private eye series became an entertainment staple.

Hammett wrote more than 80 short stories and five novels: “Red Harvest” (1929), “The Dain Curse” (1929), “The Maltese Falcon” (1930), “The Glass Key” (1931) and “The Thin Man” (1934). He created tough guys Sam Spade and the Continental Op as well as debonaire sleuths Nick and Nora Charles. He wrote a comic strip (“Secret Agent X-9”), an original radio series (“The Fat Man”) and worked on numerous scripts, often simply to polish dialogue. Hammett’s crisp, colorful language brought gangster slang into everyday speech.

Born in Maryland on May 27, 1894, Sam Hammett was raised in Baltimore and Philadelphia. He never finished high school. At 14, he went to work at a series of jobs to help support his family. At 21, he was hired by the Pinkerton National Detective Agency as an “operative.” He traveled across the country on assignment from 1915 to 1921 with time off to serve stateside in the Motor Ambulance Corps. in World War I. A bout with tuberculosis in the service kept him in fragile health for the rest of his life. Nevertheless, he managed to join the Army in WWII at age 48 and served in the Aleutian Islands for three years.

The work of a Pinkerton investigator captured his imagination, but his assignments as a union strike-breaker did not. In Butte, Montana, the vicious murder of Frank Little, organizer of Industrial Workers of the World (“the Wobblies”), soured him on the agency. Pinkerton men were thought responsible for the killing, which was never solved. Hammett recreated the violent atmosphere of Butte in Red Harvest’s fictional city of Poisonville.

Hammett married a nurse he met during his TB treatment. They settled in San Francisco and had two daughters. In 1922 he began writing for Black Mask Magazine first using the pen name “Peter Collinson” then taking Dashiell Hammett as his byline. [At this time, he had discarded his first name and was called Slim or Dash by his friends.] The magazine stories, featuring detective Sam Spade or the Continental Op, drew from his wealth of on-the-job experience. His hard-boiled heroes are men free of family ties, loners, who live by a rigid code of personal honor.

Hammett’s marriage faltered, and he drifted down to Hollywood looking for writing opportunities in the movies. In 1930 he met Lillian Hellman, then a 24-year-old aspiring playwright married to a screenwriter. A short while later she moved in with him. Though both eventually divorced their spouses, Hammett and Hellman never married. Their relationship lasted until his death. She was pleased when he told her she was the inspiration for Nora, wife and sleuthing partner of Nick Charles in The Thin Man; however “Hammett said I was also the silly girl in the book and the villainess.”

Success in films eluded Hammett. The Thin Man became a popular movie series starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, but MGM hired other writers to script the sequels. The Maltese Falcon failed twice on screen — as Dangerous Female (1931) and as Satan Met a Lady (1936) — before the inspired casting of Humphrey Bogart combined with John Huston’s script and direction to hit a bullseye in 1941. The adaptation succeeded in capturing the lean story-telling style of the novel as well as effectively bringing its popular hero to life on screen.

In the late ’40s, Dashiell Hammett became an active supporter of the Civil Rights Congress of New York. In 1951 he refused to give information about four members of the group who were Communists and was sentenced to jail for six months. Further troubles were to follow. The IRS garnisheed all income from new publications or productions of his work for back taxes. In 1953 he again faced media scrutiny testifying as an unfriendly witness in the McCarthy hearings.

His later years were plagued by failing health and financial problems. He was unable to finish “Tulip,” the most autobiographical of all his books. [Hellman published it as a novella in “The Big Knockover,” a collection of tales she edited in 1966.] After a decade of silence, Dashiell Hammett had been nearly forgotten when he died of lung cancer in 1961 at the age of 67. History has gone on to celebrate his achievements as one of the most influential American writers of the twentieth century.


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