All about Dashiell Hammett and Sam Spade, bio, pictures, links to books
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.
If you're looking for Dashell Hammett, Dashiell Hammet, Dashel Hamett, or Dashel Hamet, see Mystery Net's
profile of Dashiell Hammett. His name is sometimes misspelled as Dashel, Dashiel,
Dashiell, Dashell, or Hamet, Hamett, Hammet.