Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) is universally recognised as having pioneered hard-boiled crime fiction as a literary form, having written one or two (or maybe three or four) English-language novels that command the attention of serious readers, as well as being an early American practitioner of literary modernism and literary existentialism. And for all that, he is still arguably underestimated as an author.
The reasons for this are simple: Hammett wrote crime fiction mostly published initially in pulp magazines; his audience for much of his career was decidedly lowbrow; and his subjects were often (though not always) denizens of the mean streets. It took a while for the American literati to accept the fact that great literature need not be confined to ordered communities.
Hammett’s career trajectory was mercurial. He dropped out of high school when he was 15 to help support his family. In 1915, when he turned 21, the minimum age for employment as a detective at Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, he signed up and began a career as a private investigator.
Three years later, he took leave to join the army, serving as a stateside ambulance driver in the medical corps during World War I, transporting soldiers returning from Europe with Spanish Influenza, which he contracted. He received a medical discharge in 1919, and, after a year, attempted to return to the detective business in the Far West, but he was too ill to persevere.
Within two years, Hammett was hospitalised with tuberculosis, fell in love with his nurse, fathered a child, and moved to San Francisco to get married. Still limited by his health but with a family to support, he turned to the only option available to him: he wrote about what he knew and cared about — crime, the people who commit it, and those who try to stop it.
Black Mask was founded in 1920 by H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan to take advantage of the penny-a-word (at best) pulp-magazine trade, and to publish, in Mencken’s words, ‘hacks of experience’ writing for ‘murder fans’. Initially Black Mask printed adventure stories without distinction.
After Hammett sold a couple of short-short sketches to Mencken’s Smart Set magazine, the editor recommended that he might have better luck writing for Black Mask, which Mencken and Nathan had by that time sold. Hammett was a hit with Black Mask readers from the beginning, writing stories distinguished by their believability and their emphasis on the mechanics of detection.
But Black Mask was going through a growth spurt, and the new editors — part-timers without serious editing credentials — were formula-bound. Action, they insisted, was the key to improving sales; violent action was better, and a sprinkling of sex only added to the appeal.
As a new writer dependent on sales to feed his family, Hammett gave his editors what they wanted, even as he honed his skills with more carefully crafted characters and more complex plots.
The editorial pressure to turn out stories about characters who had turned blood simple, to use Hammett’s term, continued until, in 1926, he had had enough. He was feeling better and was by now fed up with what he regarded as tasteless, imperious editors. More and more confident in his own creative vision, he had developed enough of a reputation as a writer to assert his will. So he quit.
Within six months, during which he worked as an advertising manager, Hammett learned he was not as healthy as he thought. He collapsed in his office and returned to his bed, again in need of an income.
At the same time an ambitious new editor took the helm at Black Mask, Joseph T. Shaw, who regarded Hammett as a serious writer around whom he could build a magazine with a reputation for quality. In the fall of 1926 he asked Hammett to come back, raised his pay, promised to promote him as a novelist, and gave him his head.
The next year Hammett produced his first novel, serially published as The Cleansing of Poisonville. It was published in book form by Alfred A. Knopf in 1929 as Red Harvest, inaugurating a line called Borzoi Mysteries managed by Mrs. Knopf, whom her husband identified as the editor in the family.
The response was electric. Writing in Town & Country magazine, William Curtis declared: ‘For the first time in my knowledge, the American policeman and police detective has been adequately represented in fiction.’ Hammett was breaking the mould, being recognised as a crime writer who transcended genre fiction.
The next year he submitted his third novel to Knopf with the declaration that now he was ready to turn detective fiction into literature. The result was The Maltese Falcon, followed by The Glass Key, and The Thin Man.
Hammett’s first four novels, all serialised in Black Mask before being published by Knopf, broke through the reader prejudices against detective fiction, and the reviews in the national press were glowing. In The New Yorker, Dorothy Parker gushed about Hammett’s detective Sam Spade, ‘after reading The Maltese Falcon, I went mooning about in a daze of love such as I had not known for any character in literature since I encountered Sir Lancelot’.
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Parker preferred Spade to Ned Beaumont, the protagonist of The Glass Key: ‘But all that’s not to say that The Glass Key is not a good book and an enthralling one, and the best you have read since The Maltese Falcon. And if you didn’t read that, this is the swiftest book you’ve ever read in your life.’
By the time his last novel, The Thin Man, was published in January 1934, Hammett was identified in Vanity Fair as ‘the smartest, liveliest and most literate detective story author in America’.
Dashiell Hammett had become a bona fide celebrity, and he lived the part — while he could. There was a price, of course, and, in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the price was high. After The Thin Man was published, he was through as a writer, though the money from book royalties and movie rights kept flowing. Whiskey, women, reckless extravagance, and finally depression took their toll, before he righted himself.
The Great Depression focused his attentions on political matters. He enlisted in the army during the Second World War, and he devoted his time after the war to the principle he articulated in a September 1936 letter to his not-quite 15-year-old daughter Mary: ‘Be in favour of what’s good for the workers, and against what’s not’.
He paid a price for that, too. An unapologetic member of the Communist Party USA, he was jailed in 1951 for refusing to testify about his activities in federal court. He emerged from prison both financially and physically broken. The IRS seized his assets, and, eventually, he developed the lung cancer that killed him 10 years later. What he left behind are those stories and novels that shine as brightly now as the day they were published.
Richard Layman’s book, Shadow Man: the Life of Dashiell Hammett, is out now