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Photo portrait of Hammett from the cover of his final novel, The Thin Man(1934)
Hammett was born near Great Mills on the "Hopewell and Aim" 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 elder 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 said 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 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., San Francisco, 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 "I do take most of my characters from real life." 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 bulk of his early work, featuring a nameless 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.
Because of a disagreement with editor Philip C. Cody about money owed from previous stories, Hammett briefly stopped writing for Black Mask in 1926. He then took a full-time job as an advertisement copywriter for the Albert S. Samuels Co., a San Francisco jeweller. He was wooed back to writing for the Black Mask by Joseph Thompson Shaw, who became the new editor in the summer of 1926. Hammett dedicated his first novel, Red Harvest, to Shaw and his second novel, The Dain Curse, to Samuels. Both these novels and his third, The Maltese Falcon, and fourth, The Glass Key, were first serialized in Black Mask before being revised and edited for publication by Alfred A. Knopf. The Maltese Falcon, considered to be his best work, was voted No. 2 of The Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time by the Mystery Writers of America and is dedicated to his wife Josephine.
For much of 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. The Thin Man is dedicated to Hellman. 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.
Hammett was the ace performer, but there is nothing in his work that is not implicit in the early novels and short stories of Hemingway. Yet for all I know, Hemingway may have learned something from Hammett, as well as from writers like Dreiser, Ring Lardner, Carl Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson and himself ...
Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish ... He is said to have lacked heart, yet the story he thought most of himself [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.
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."
Hellman wrote that Hammett was "most certainly" a Marxist, though a "very critical Marxist" who was "often contemptuous of the Soviet Union" and "bitingly sharp about the American Communist Party", to which he was nevertheless loyal.
At the beginning of 1942, he wrote the screenplay of Watch on the Rhine, based on Hellman's successful play, which received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay). But that year the Oscar went to Casablanca. 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 an enlisted man in the Aleutian Islands and initially worked on cryptanalysis on the island of Umnak. For fear of his radical tendencies, he was transferred to the Headquarters Company 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".
In 1946, a bail fund was created by the CRC "to be used at the discretion of three trustees to gain the release of defendants arrested for political reasons." The trustees were Hammett, who was chairman, Robert W. Dunn, and Frederick Vanderbilt Field.
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."
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 caused him to be 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.
There is an almost complete bibliography by Richard Layman. This last is an updated listing of the works described in Dashiell Hammett: A Descriptive Bibliography. Hammett's entry in American Hard Boiled Crime Writers also contains a bibliography.
The Dain Curse: The Glass Key; and Selected Stories. Everyman's Library Contemporary Classics. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2007. ISBN978-0-307266-69-9.
Because of their popularity, Hammett's short stories were collected in many anthologies by different publishers. After their initial publication in pulp magazines, they were first collected in ten digest-sizedpaperbacks by Mercury Publications under an imprint, either Bestsellers Mystery, A Jonathan Press Mystery or Mercury Mystery. The stories were edited by Ellery Queen (Frederic Dannay) and were abridged versions of the original publications. Some of these digests were reprinted as hardcovers by World Publishing under the imprint Tower Books. The anthologies were also republished as Dellmapbacks. An important collection, The Big Knockover and Other Stories, edited by Lillian Hellman, helped revive Hammett's literary reputation in the 1960s and fostered a new series of anthologies. However, most of these used Dannay's abridged version of the stories. Steven Marcus, while editing the collection for the Library of America, was the first to return to the original magazine texts.
$106,000 Blood Money. Bestseller Mystery B40, 1943. Collection of two connected Continental Op stories, "The Big Knockover" and "$106,000 Blood Money".
The Adventures of Sam Spade. Bestseller Mystery B50, 1944. Collection of three Spade stories and four others.
They Can Only Hang You Once and Other Stories. Mercury Mystery B50, 1949. Reprint of Bestseller Mystery B50.
The Continental Op. Bestseller Mystery B62, 1945. Collection of four Continental Op stories.
The Continental Op. Jonathan Press Mystery J40, 1949. Reprint of Bestseller Mystery B62.
The Return of the Continental Op. Jonathan Press Mystery J17, 1945. Collection of five further Continental Op stories.
Hammett Homicides. Bestseller Mystery B81, 1946. Collection of six stories, four of which feature the Continental Op.
Dead Yellow Women. Jonathan Press Mystery J29, 1947. Collection of six stories, four of which feature the Continental Op.
Nightmare Town. Mercury Mystery #120, 1948. Collection of four stories, two of which feature the Continental Op.
The Creeping Siamese. Jonathan Press Mystery J48, 1950. Collection of six stories, three of which feature the Continental Op.
Woman in the Dark. Jonathan Press Mystery J59, 1951. Collection of the three part novelette.
A Man Named Thin. Mercury Mystery #233, 1962. Collection of eight stories, one of which features the Continental Op.
Blood Money. Tower, 1943. Hardcover edition of Bestseller Mystery B40.
The Adventures of Sam Spade and other stories. 1945. Hardcover edition of Bestseller Mystery B50.
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. ISBN978-0-972589-81-9
Vintage Hammett. New York : Vintage Books, 2005. Collection nine stories of Sam Spade, Nick and Nora Charles, and The Continental Op. ISBN978-1-400079-62-9
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. ISBN978-0-802121-58-5
The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories. New York : Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, Vintage Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, . ISBN978-0-307455-43-7 Reprints The Maltese Falcon in its original serialized form.
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
^Hammett, Dashiell (2017). The Big Book of the Continental Op. New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard. ISBN978-0-525432-95-1.
^The Crown Crime Companion. The Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time Selected by the Mystery Writers of America, annotated by Otto Penzler and compiled by Mickey Friedman (New York, 1995) (ISBN0-517-88115-2).
^Hammett, Dashiell (1965). The Novels of Dashiell Hammett. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. pp. Foreword.
^U.S., World War II Draft Registration Cards, 1942
^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.
^Hammett, Dashiell (1999). Marcus, Steven (ed.). Complete Novels. Library of America. pp. 957-958. ISBN978-1-883011-67-3.
^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.")