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Photo portrait of Hammett from the cover of his final novel, The Thin Man(1934)
Hammett "is now widely regarded as one of the finest mystery writers of all time". In his obituary in The New York Times, he was described as "the dean of the... 'hard-boiled' school of detective fiction."Time magazine included Hammett's 1929 novel Red Harvest on its list of the 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005. His novels and stories also had a significant influence on films, including the genres of private-eye/detective fiction, mystery thrillers, and film-noir.
Hammett was born on a farm in Saint Mary's County, Maryland to Richard Thomas Hammett and his wife Anne Bond Dashiell. His mother belonged to an old Maryland family, whose name in French was De Chiel. He had an older sister, Aronia, and a younger brother, Richard, Jr. Known as Sam, Hammett was baptized a Catholic, and grew up in Philadelphia and Baltimore.
He left school when he was 13 years old and held several jobs before working for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. He served as an operative for Pinkerton from 1915 to February 1922, with time off to serve in World War I. He claimed that while with the Pinkertons, he was sent to Butte, Montana, during the union strikes, though some researchers doubt this really happened. The agency's role in union strike-breaking eventually left him disillusioned.
Hammett and Dolan had two daughters, Mary Jane (born 1921) and Josephine (born 1926). Shortly after the birth of their second child, health services nurses informed Dolan that due to Hammett's tuberculosis, she and the children should not live with him full-time. Dolan rented a home in San Francisco, where Hammett would visit on weekends. The marriage soon fell apart; however, he continued to financially support his wife and daughters with the income he made from his writing.
Career and personal life
Building at 891 Post St. where Hammett lived while writing The Maltese Falcon: The character Sam Spade may have also lived in the building.
Hammett was first published in 1922 in the magazine The Smart Set. Known for the authenticity and realism of his writing, he drew on his experiences as a Pinkerton operative. Hammett wrote most of his detective fiction while he was living in San Francisco in the 1920s; streets and other locations in San Francisco are frequently mentioned in his stories. He said that "All my characters were based on people I've known personally, or known about." His novels were some of the first to use dialogue that sounded authentic to the era. "I distrust a man that says when. If he's got to be careful not to drink too much, it's because he's not to be trusted when he does". (The Maltese Falcon, 1929)
The bulk of his early work, featuring a private investigator, The Continental Op, appeared in leading crime-fiction pulp magazine, Black Mask. Both Hammett and the magazine struggled in the period when Hammett became established.
Hammett was the ace performer... He is said to have lacked heart; yet the story he himself thought the most of, The Glass Key, is the record of a man's devotion to a friend. He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.
In 1929 and 1930, he was romantically involved with Nell Martin, a writer of short stories and several novels. He dedicated The Glass Key to her, and in turn, she dedicated her novel Lovers Should Marry to him.
In 1931, Hammett embarked on a 30-year romantic relationship with the playwright Lillian Hellman. Though he sporadically continued to work on material, he wrote his final novel in 1934, more than 25 years before his death. Why he moved away from fiction is not certain; Hellman speculated in a posthumous collection of Hammett's novels, "I think, but I only think, I know a few of the reasons: he wanted to do new kind of work, he was sick for many of those years and getting sicker." In the 1940s, Hellman and he lived at her farm, Hardscrabble Farm, in Pleasantville, New York.
Especially in Red Harvest, literary scholars have seen a Marxist critique of the social system. One Hammett biographer, Richard Layman, calls such interpretations "imaginative", but he nonetheless objects to them, since, among other reasons, no "masses of politically dispossessed people" are in this novel. Herbert Ruhm found that contemporary left-wing media already viewed Hammett's writing with skepticism, "perhaps because his work suggests no solution: no mass-action ... no individual salvation ... no Emersonian reconciliation and transcendence". In a letter of November 25, 1937, to his daughter Mary, Hammett referred to himself and others as "we reds". He confirmed, "in a democracy all men are supposed to have an equal say in their government", but added that "their equality need not go beyond that." He also found, "under socialism there is not necessarily [...] any leveling of incomes."
In early 1942, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hammett again enlisted in the United States Army. He was a disabled veteran of World War I, a victim of tuberculosis, and a Communist, but he pulled strings to be admitted. However, biographer Diane Johnson suggests that confusion over Hammett's forenames was the reason he was able to re-enlist. He served as a sergeant in the Aleutian Islands, where he edited an Army newspaper entitled The Adakian. In 1943, while still a member of the military, he co-authored The Battle of the Aleutians with Cpl. Robert Colodny, under the direction of an infantry intelligence officer, Major Henry W. Hall. While in the Aleutians, he developed emphysema.
After the war, Hammett returned to political activism, "but he played that role with less fervour than before". He was elected president of the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) on June 5, 1946, at a meeting held at the Hotel Diplomat in New York City, and "devoted the largest portion of his working time to CRC activities".
Hammett testified on July 9, 1951, in front of United States District Court Judge Sylvester Ryan, facing questioning by Irving Saypol, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, described by Time as "the nation's number-one legal hunter of top Communists". During the hearing, Hammett refused to provide the information the government wanted, specifically the list of contributors to the bail fund, "people who might be sympathetic enough to harbor the fugitives." Instead, on every question regarding the CRC or the bail fund, Hammett declined to answer, citing the Fifth Amendment, refusing to even identify his signature or initials on CRC documents the government had subpoenaed. As soon as his testimony concluded, Hammett was found guilty of contempt of court.
Hammett served time in a West Virginia federal penitentiary, where according to Lillian Hellman, he was assigned to clean toilets. Hellman noted in her eulogy of Hammett that he submitted to prison rather than reveal the names of the contributors to the fund because "he had come to the conclusion that a man should keep his word."
Later years and death
During the 1950s, Hammett was investigated by Congress. He testified on March 26, 1953, before the House Un-American Activities Committee about his own activities, but refused to cooperate with the committee. No official action was taken, but his stand led to him being blacklisted, along with others who were blacklisted as a result of McCarthyism.
Hammett became an alcoholic before working in advertising, and alcoholism continued to trouble him until 1948, when he quit under doctor's orders. However, years of heavy drinking and smoking worsened the tuberculosis he contracted in World War I, and then according to Hellman, "jail had made a thin man thinner, a sick man sicker ... I knew he would now always be sick."
Hellman wrote that during the 1950s, Hammett became "a hermit", his decline evident in the clutter of his rented "ugly little country cottage", where "signs of sickness were all around: now the phonograph was unplayed, the typewriter untouched, the beloved foolish gadgets unopened in their packages." He may have meant to start a new literary life with the novel Tulip, but left it unfinished, perhaps because he was "just too ill to care, too worn out to listen to plans or read contracts. The fact of breathing, just breathing, took up all the days and nights." Hammett could no longer live alone, and they both knew it, so he spent the last four years of his life with Hellman. "Not all of that time was easy, and some of it very bad", she wrote, but, "guessing death was not too far away, I would try for something to have afterwards."
Hammett's relationship with Lillian Hellman was portrayed in the 1977 film Julia. Jason Robards won an Oscar for his depiction of Hammett, and Jane Fonda was nominated for her portrayal of Lillian Hellman.
Hammett was the subject of a 1982 prime time PBS biography, The Case of Dashiell Hammett, that won a Peabody Award and a special Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America.
In this list, the two letter designations just before the description indicate that the story was included in particular collections of stories, as listed below. Neither the list of collected books, nor the list of which collected books the stories are in, are complete or comprehensive.
BK - The Big Knockover, 1966
CO - The Continental Op
RO - The Return Of the Continental Op
NT - Nightmare Town
CS - Crime Stories and Other Writings
"Arson Plus" (Black Mask, October 1, 1923) (as Peter Collinson) (CS). Suspecting insurance fraud, the Op investigates the burning of an isolated farmhouse and its reclusive inhabitant.
"Crooked Souls" ("The Gatewood Caper") (Black Mask, October 1, 1923) (BK) (CS). A bullying lumber baron has lost a daughter to kidnappers, but the Op isn't convinced--of anything.
"Slippery Fingers" (Black Mask, October 15, 1923) (as Peter Collinson) (CS). The Op and the police search for the owner of the fingerprints strewn over the scene of a gory murder.
"It" ("The Black Hat That Wasn't There") (Black Mask, November 1, 1923). A reckless businessman plots theft and elopement, then disappears, until the Op locates him in a pitch-dark basement.
"Bodies Piled Up" (:The House Dick") (Black Mask, December 1, 1923) (NT). Posing as a killer hunting a killer works too well as the Op gets caught in a crossfire.
"The Tenth Clew" ("The Tenth Clue") (Black Mask, January 1, 1924) (CO) (CS) (RO). A rich man is killed with a typewriter and the Op gets dumped into San Francisco Bay.
"Night Shots" (Black Mask, February 1924) (NT). In a lonely country house, the Op investigates pot-shots aimed at a sick old scoundrel.
"Zigzags of Treachery" (Black Mask, March 1, 1924) (NT) (CS). When a prominent surgeon commits suicide and an unknown wife shows up, the Op and other agents follow suspect after suspect to untangle a decades-old conspiracy.
"One Hour" (Black Mask, April 1924) (NT) (RO). In a busy hour, a hit-and-run leads the Op to a print shop where he's mobbed.
"The House in Turk Street" (Black Mask, April 15, 1924) (CO) (CS). Routine questions on a quiet street tumble the Op into a den of thieves.
"The Girl with Silver Eyes" (Black Mask, June 1924) (CO) (CS). Following on "Turk Street", a dead poet leads the Op to a dark night's shootout outside a rough-and-tumble roadhouse.
"Women, Politics and Murder" ("Death on Pine Street") (Black Mask, September 1924) (NT) (CS). The Op shuttles between a hysterical wife and a dead-pan mistress, knowing both are liars, to learn who killed a city contractor.
"The Golden Horseshoe" (Black Mask, November 1924) (CO) (CS). The Op finds a hophead husband who ran away to Tijuana, but the wife he left behind turns up dead.
"Who Killed Bob Teal?" (True Detective Stories, November 1924) (NT). A fellow Continental detective was killed while shadowing a suspect, so the Op and a city cop retrace his steps.
"Mike, Alec or Rufus?" ("Tom, Dick or Harry") (Black Mask, January 1925) (NT). The cops are stumped by a robber who ran into an apartment house and didn't come out, but not the Op.
"The Whosis Kid" (Black Mask, March 1925) (CO) (CS) (RO). On a hunch, the Op trails a stick-up artist and worms his way into a "double-, triple- and septuple-cross".
"The Scorched Face" (Black Mask, May 1925) (BK) (CS). Hunting two missing daughters, the Op uncovers a rash of debutante suicides and disappearances.
"Corkscrew" (Black Mask, September 1925) (BK). The Op is appointed Deputy Sheriff of Corkscrew, Arizona, where cowboys keep getting killed.
"Dead Yellow Women" (Black Mask, November 1925) (BK) (CS). The Op braves the dark alleys of Chinatown to learn why a seaside mansion was raided by Asian strangers.
The Gutting of Couffignal (Black Mask, December 1925) (BK) (CS) (RO). On a wealthy summer island, the Continental Op tries to thwart an invasion when the lights go off and machine guns fire up.
"Creeping Siamese" (Black Mask, March 1926) (CS). A man dies in the Continental office without revealing who knifed him. The Op connects the crime with the victim's decade-old adventures in Asia.
"The Big Knock-Over" (Black Mask, February 1927) (BK) (CS). An army of imported gangsters raided two banks, and the Op dodges bullets and fists to find the mastermind.
"$106,000 Blood Money" (Black Mask, May 1927) (BK) (CS). In the aftermath of "The Big Knockover", the Op hunts the double-crossing mastermind, as do "half the crooks in the country".
"The Main Death" (Black Mask, June 1927) (CO) (CS). The Op ignores a suicide to get back $20,000 - at gun point.
"The Cleansing of Poisonville" (Black Mask, November 1927). Summoned to "Poisonville", the Op finds his client was murdered. The dead man's father rules the town, so the Op strikes a deal to clean up the town "with a free hand". Dodging double-crossing cops and crooks, he exposes the murderer. And refuses to call off the "cleansing".
"Crime Wanted - Male or Female" (Black Mask, December 1927). Stirring up trouble, the Op un-fixes a fight and investigates a year-old "suicide" of the police chief's brother, just as someone dynamites the City Hall holding cells. "Poisonville was beginning to boil out under the lid."
"Dynamite" (Black Mask, January 1928). A raid on a bootlegger's roadhouse makes the cops miss a bank robbery. As the mob ruling "Poisonville" gathers for a "peace conference", the Op tosses "dynamite" that exposes multiple frame-ups and shatters the partnership.
"The 19th Murder" (Black Mask, February 1928). Getting "blood simple as the natives", the Op wakes to find he may have ice-picked his female informer, so runs from the law while steering the mobs into a final battle for control of "Poisonville".
"This King Business" (Mystery Stories, January 1928) (BK) (CS). Seeking a wayward son in the Balkan country of Muravia, the Op learns the boy is funding a kingly coup.
"Black Lives" (Black Mask, November 1928)
"The Hollow Temple" (Black Mask, December 1928)
"Black Honeymoon" (Black Mask, January 1929)
"Black Riddle" (Black Mask, February 1929)
"Fly Paper" (Black Mask, August 1929) (BK) (CS). The Op finds a "wandering daughter" who liked rough "yeggs" and ended up dead.
"The Farewell Murder" (Black Mask, February 1930) (CO) (CS). The Op struggles to prove a vendetta-bent sadist wasn't nine hours away at the time of a grisly killing.
"Death and Company" (Black Mask, November 1930) (RO). Kidnappers collect ransom money from under the noses of the police, then kill their hostage. Death catches the culprit before the Op can.
$106,000 Blood Money. Bestseller Mystery, 1943. A digest-sizedpaperback collection of two connected Continental Op stories, "The Big Knockover" and "$106,000 Blood Money".
Blood Money. Tower, 1943. Hardcover edition of the 1943 Bestseller Mystery title.
The Adventures of Sam Spade. Bestseller Mystery, 1944. Digest paperback collection of three Spade stories and four others. This and the following eight digest collections were compiled and edited by Frederic Dannay (one half of the writing partnership using the pseudonym Ellery Queen) with Hammett's permission. All of them were reprinted as Dell map-back paperbacks.
"A Man Called Spade and Other Stories". Dell, 1944. Digest paperback collection containing 3 Sam Spade stories and 2 other short stories.
The Continental Op. Bestseller Mystery, 1945. Digest paperback collection of four Continental Op stories.
The Adventures of Sam Spade. Tower, 1945. Hardcover edition of the digest paperback of the same title. The last of the digests to be reprinted in hardcover.
The Return of the Continental Op. Jonathan Press, 1945. Digest paperback collection of five further Continental Op stories.
Hammett Homicides. Bestseller Mysteries, 1946. Digest paperback collection of six stories, four of which feature the Continental Op.
Dead Yellow Women. Jonathan Press, 1947. Digest paperback collection of six stories, four of which feature the Continental Op.
Nightmare Town. American Mercury, 1948. Digest paperback collection of four stories, two of which feature the Continental Op.
The Creeping Siamese. American Mercury, 1950. Digest paperback collection of six stories, three of which feature the Continental Op.
A Man Named Thin. Mercury Mystery, 1962. The last digest paperback, a collection of eight stories, one of which features the Continental Op.
The Big Knockover. Random House, 1966. An important collection, edited by Lillian Hellman, which helped revive Hammett's literary reputation, including the unfinished novel Tulip.
The Continental Op. Random House, 1974. Edited and with an introduction by Steven Marcus. Comprises 7 stories.
Woman in the Dark. Knopf, 1988. Hardcover collection of the three parts of the title novelette, with an introduction by Robert B. Parker.
Nightmare Town. Knopf, 1999. Hardcover collection, with contents different from the digest of the same title.
Lost Stories. Vince Emery Productions, 2005. Collection of 21 stories not been previously published in hardcover, including some previously unpublished stories, with several long commentaries on Hammett's career providing context for the stories. Introduction by Joe Gores.
Vintage Hammett. New York : Vintage Books, 2005. Collection nine stories of Sam Spade, Nick and Nora Charles, The Continental Op.
The Hunter and Other Stories. Mysterious Press, 2014. Collection of previously unpublished or uncollected stories and screenplays, including a fragment of a second Sam Spade novel. Edited by Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett.
Sam Spade: Volumes One and Two. Cedar Cove : Radio Spirits 2015. Electronic audio file by OverDrive, Inc. - Distributor
The Big Book of the Continental Op. New York : Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, Vintage Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, . Collects all twenty-eight stories and two serialized novels starring Continental Op, plus the previously unpublished fragment "Three Dimes." ISBN978-0-525432-95-1
^Hellman, Lilian (1962). Introduction to Dashiell Hammett, The Big Knockover: Selected Stories and Short Novels. Houghton Mifflin. (Published posthumously; Hammett had turned down offers to republish his stories, and Hellman published them only after his death, as a tribute.) pp. vii-viii,
^Hellman, Lilian. Introduction to The Big Knockover. pp. xi-xii. Hellman wrote that there began an "irritating farce" that Hammett told her he was cleaning bathrooms "better than [she] had ever done" and "learned to take pride in the work", which she called his form of boasting, or humor, "to make fun of trouble or pain."
^Johnson, Diane (1987). Dashiell Hammett: A Life. Fawcett Columbine. Cited in King Laurie R. (2010). Afterword. Locked Rooms. Random House. p. 403.
^Hellman's introduction to The Big Knockover, p. viii (Hellman speculated that Hammett turned down republishing offers because he hoped for a fresh start and "didn't want the old work to get in the way.")