Samuel Dashiell Hammett was an American author of Hard Boiled Detective fiction. He can even be considered a pioneer in the genre as it has influenced many in the genre especially writers like Raymond Chandler. His novel “The Maltese Falcon” involving his most famous character Sam Spade has influenced the genre of Film Noir. His stories themselves were inspired from his own experiences from being a Pinkerton detective. This allowed them to carry a level of authenticity and realism that was never seen before. He is said to have brought the genre of detective fiction to the real world in all its gritty detail and writing for an audience that was not afraid to witness it. This led to him becoming a highly celebrated mystery writer and receiving many accolades from the world of literature and entertainment.
Dashiell Hammett had a very eventful life. Born in 1894 in Maryland, USA, he spent most of his childhood in Baltimore and Philadelphia. After dropping out of school at the age of 13, he eventually landed a job in the Pinkerton National Detective Agency where he worked for 7 years. He eventually had to leave the job when he refused to assassinate a union leader to diffuse a strike. This event influenced his later life and guiding philosophies.
During this stint he also served in the First World War. However he fell ill with Spanish flu and later tuberculosis and remained a patient throughout the war. He married Josephine Dolan who was a nurse at his hospital and later had two daughters. Although the marriage soon fell apart as they had to live separately due to medical reasons he did provide monetary support to his family with his income from writing.
Before becoming a writer he worked in advertising and turned to alcoholism. He did most of writing during the 1920’s in the city of San Francisco. This can also be seen from the various references to the city in his works. Near the end of the 1920’s he was also romantically involved with Nell Martin a small time author of short stories and mysteries. One of his most favorite books “The Glass Key” which inspired works like “Yojimbo” by Akira Kurosawa and “Miller’s Crossing” by Coen Brothers, was dedicated to her. “The Glass Key” also inspired an award given to crime writers of Scandinavia. Some of its winners have been “Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. He then was involved with a 30 year long romantic affair with Lillian Hellman, a successful Broadway playwright.
Hammett later became a left wing activist and a Marxist and joined the Communist Party in 1937. He joined the Second World War despite being a disabled war veteran from the First World War. After the war he became the president of the Civil Rights Congress. However in 1947 under the Executive Order of President Harry S Truman, their organization was identified as a communist organization. When tried by the court on charges of being a communist, he refused to divulge any information and was found guilty of contempt of court. He was sentenced to prison where he was assigned toilet cleaning duties. Later in 1953 he testified about his own activities but never disclosed any information about anyone else. He was therefore blacklisted under McCarthyism. By this time his tuberculosis had worsened after a lifetime of smoking and drinking. This was made worse by his stint in prison. He spent his last four years living with Hellman and died of lung cancer detected just two months prior. He was buried at the Arlington National Cemetery as a veteran.
One of his most famous characters is Sam Spade. He was introduced to the public through his third novel, “The Maltese Falcon”. The role of Sam Spade was also played by Humphrey Bogart in the 1941 movie adaptation of the novel which is frequently recognized as one of the most famous examples of Film Noir. Sam Spade is recognized as having set the mold for the private detective character in hard-boiled detective fiction. Writers like Raymond Chandler have drawn inspiration from it. According to Hammett, he was based on what all the detectives he had worked with would like to be – a shifty and hard person who is able to take care of himself no matter the situation and who can get the best of anybody. Later Humphrey Bogart portrayed the character in the most famous film “The Maltese Falcon”. The film is about a private detective investigating three people after the famous eponymous jeweled falcon. This portrayal was marked by his short stature and beige prose heavy depiction thus setting the most followed framework for film noir although it was very different from the portrayal of the character of Sam Spade in the novel.
Nick and Nora Charles from his fifth and final novel, “The Thin Man” also set the prototype for the archetype of the romantic crime solving couple. There interactions are marked by smart banter and sharp repartee. In the novel, Nick is a former private detective married to wealthy heiress, Nora who herself was inspired by Lillian Hellman. Nick himself takes many cues from Hammett. This novel unlike Hammett’s other works was relatively light and set to a more humorous tone and can be treated as much as a mystery novel as a comedy. The film adaptation was welcomed heartily by the public and was a resounding success. As a result, five sequels to the movie were produced while there was only one novel ever written. The films themselves revolutionized several aspects of portrayal of married couples in films.
His first major character however was The Continental Op who starred in the novels “Red Harvest” and “The Dain Curse”. This character remains unnamed throughout all the stories that he appears in. “Red Harvest” has been suggested as another inspiration behind the film “Yojimbo” by Akira Kurosawa and “Miller’s Crossing” by the Coen Brothers. The Coen Brothers named their debut film “Blood Simple” after an expression mentioned in the novel “Red Harvest”. The Continental Op was the definitive character for the archetype of a hard- boiled private detective which was then developed into characters like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe by Raymond Chandler among others.
Hammett’s relationship with Lillian Hellman itself was the subject of a film called “Julia” which led to the Jason Robards winning an Oscar for the portrayal of Dashiell Hammett and the actress Jane Fonda getting a nomination for portraying Hellman.
Books in order of publication by series:
|The Dain Curse||(1929)|
|The Maltese Falcon||(1930)|
|The Glass Key||(1931)|
|The Thin Man||(1934)|
|Woman in the Dark||(1933)|
|They Can Only Hang You Once||(1944)|
|The Creeping Siamese||(1950)|
Short Story Collections
|The Adventures of Sam Spade and Other Stories||(1944)|
|A Man Called Spade and Other Stories||(1944)|
|Dead Yellow Women||(1947)|
|The Big Knockover||(1966)|
|The Continental Op||(1974)|
|Nightmare Town and Other Stories||(1999)|
|Dashiell Hammett: Crime Stories and Other Writings||(2001)|
|Dashiell Hammett: A Retrospective Anthology||(2004)|
|Return of the Thin Man||(2012)|
|Creeps by Night||(1931)|
|The Red Brain||(1961)|
Publication Order of Non-Fiction Books
|Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett, 1921-1960||(2001)|
|The Crime Wave: Collected Nonfiction||(2007)|