Dashiell Hammett

Author Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) popularized the hardboiled detective fiction genre in a series of crime thrillers based on his experiences as a private detective in the 1920s. Although Hammett’s creative output largely ceased after the 1930s, his novels influenced many other crime writers, including Raymond Chandler (1888-1959), and established the loner cop who plays by his own rules as a stock character in American crime movies and television.

Prior to the 1920s, the archetypal detective in fiction was Sherlock Holmes, an upright citizen who pieces together clues to put ne’er-do-wells behind bars. Hammett’s detectives were different. Only slighly more ethical than the criminals they chased, his heroes cheated, bribed, and lied to solve their cases.

Hammett’s most famous detective in this mold was Sam Spade, the main character of  The Maltese Falcon (1930), who was immortalized by the tough guy actor Humphrey Bogart (1899-1957) in the 1941 film version. The hero of most of Hammett’s novels and short stories, however, was a nameless detective called the Continental Op, an operative for the Continental Detective Agancy. Many of the Op’s exploits were based on Hammett’s own cases. For instance, in Hammett’s first novel, Red Harvest (1929), the Op is dispatched to a violent mining town in the Rocky Mountains to investigate the murder of a newspaper publisher; Hammett himself had been stationed in Butte, Montana, during a bout of labor strife shortly after World War I (1914-1918).

The Thin Man (1934) was Hammett’s last major work and one of his most beloved, featuring Nick and Nora Charles as a hard-drinking crime-solving couple. The book was the basis for a series of successful movies. Hammett himself had begun a famous romance with the playwright Lillian Hellman (1905-1984) at about the same time, an affair that would last for the rest of his life.

Hammett’s politics veered sharply leftward during the 1930s in response to the author’s growing concern over the spread of fascism in Europe. In the anticommunist atmosphere after World War II (1939-1945), he was imprisoned for six months for refusing to answer questions about a communist-affiliated organization of which he was a member. He lived most of his last years drinking heavily at a cottage in rural New York or with Lillian Hellman at her house on the Upper East Side of New York City. A veteran of both world wars, he is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Additional Facts

1. After the McCarthy hearings, Hammett’s books were briefly pulled from some overseas State Department libraries, until President Eisenhower (1890-1969) criticized the move as an overreaction to the author’s communist sympathies.
2. It was Hammett’s lover, Lillian Hellman, who famously refused to answer McCarthy’s questions, saying she would not “cut my conscience to fit the year’s fashions.”
3. Hammett’s first short story was published in 1922 by
The Smart Set, a magazine edited by the famous journalist H.L. Mencken (1880-1956).

From The Intellectual Devotional – Modern Culture by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim

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