Today is the birthday of novelist Dashiell Hammett (1894), born Samuel Dashiell Hammett in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. In 1915, he got a job as a detective for the famous Pinkerton Agency, and this experience provided fodder for his later novels. He enlisted in World War I, but contracted tuberculosis, and that — combined with his distaste over the increasing Pinkerton involvement with strike-breaking — effectively ended his gumshoe career. He tried writing, using his Pinkerton experiences as a source for stories, and published his first story in 1922. It was published in a society magazine, The Smart Set, but his stories were really better suited to pulp detective magazines, and that’s where they found a home. They weren’t intellectual brain-teasers in the “Sherlock Holmes” mold; they were gritty and unsentimental and cynical — what came to be known as “hard-boiled.” His first two novels, Red Harvest and The Dain Curse (both published in 1929), starred a character known only as the “Continental Op.”
In his third book, The Maltese Falcon (1930), Hammett created an iconic character called Sam Spade, a loner who manages to be both cynical and idealistic, and who in turn served as the inspiration for Raymond Chandler‘s private eye, Philip Marlowe. The Maltese Falcon was made into a film three times; the second one, made in 1941 and directed by John Huston, is the best known, and stars Humphrey Bogart as Spade.
In 1931, Hammett began a 30-year affair with a script girl who would eventually become a playwright: Lillian Hellman. Their relationship inspired the characters of Nick and Nora Charles, the heavy-drinking, wisecracking, crime-solving couple at the center of his final novel, The Thin Man (1934). The Charleses and their terrier Asta turned into a six-film franchise starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, and later a radio play, a TV series, and a Broadway musical. Author Donald Westlake later said of The Thin Man, “It was a sad, lonely, lost book, that pretended to be cheerful and aware and full of good fellowship, and I hadn’t known you could do that: seem to be telling this, but really telling that; three-dimensional writing, like three-dimensional chess.”
After The Thin Man, Hammett turned his attention to helping Hellman with her play writing career, and to various leftist political pursuits. He re-enlisted during World War II, in the Signal Corps, and apart from his military service as a journalist and editor, he didn’t do much writing. In 1951, he was jailed on contempt charges; he served as a bail trustee on a committee to free jailed Communists, and refused to give the names of people who had provided bail money. He served five months and when he was released, he was served with a bill for $140,000 in back taxes. He died in 1961, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, against the wishes of J. Edgar Hoover.
In his essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” Raymond Chandler wrote of Hammett, “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 never seemed to have been written before.”