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Dashiell Hammett | Biography


Dashiell Hammett was an American novelist and short story author who is credited with inventing the hard-boiled detective school of the private-eye genre. The term hard-boiled means "tough and cynical." Hammett drew on his own work as a detective at Allan Pinkerton's National Detective Agency (founded 1850) to introduce such memorable characters as private detective Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and married sleuths Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man (1933). Both works were popularized in film adaptations, with American actor Humphrey Bogart starring in The Maltese Falcon in 1941 and American actors William Powell and Myrna Loy starring in The Thin Man in 1934 and five subsequent Thin Man films. During a writing career that spanned four decades, Hammett completed 5 novels, 87 short stories, 5 screenplays, 3 poems, 13 adaptations of other writers' books, and 14 short, nonfiction essays on art, literature, and the world of advertising.

Early Life

Hammett was born in St. Mary's County, Maryland, on May 27, 1894, to a rural, working-class family. He dropped out of school when he was 13 and spent seven years working at a series of low-paying jobs to support his family before joining the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in 1915. Hammett left the agency in 1918 to enlist in World War I. He contracted tuberculosis while serving as sergeant of the Motor Ambulance Corps and spent the rest of the war as a patient in hospitals. After his discharge from the army and a short return to Pinkerton, he suffered a relapse in Tacoma, Washington. It was there that he fell in love with a nurse, Josephine Dolan, and married her.

Unable to continue working for the Pinkerton Agency, he tried working in advertising in San Francisco, but after coughing up blood and passing out in a store on Market Street he turned to writing short stories that drew both from his experiences working odd jobs and as a detective at Pinkerton. Encouraged that his first story was published in 1922 by The Smart Set, a well-known sophisticated literary magazine, Hammett wrote another 12 stories during his first year as a published author under various pseudonyms for almost as many different magazines. Hammett used his practical background as a real-life sleuth to develop a writing style that represents urban realism with down-to-earth characters, actual settings (such as San Francisco in the case of The Maltese Falcon), and tough-talking language, peppered with period slang. This unadorned style appealed to readers of pulp crime magazines (inexpensive fiction magazines) that were popular at the time. One magazine, the Black Mask, published Hammett's 12th short story, the groundbreaking "Arson Plus" in 1923.

The Hard-Boiled Detective

It was in his short story "Arson Plus" that Hammett created a rough and tough character known only as "the Continental Op," a nameless, streetwise sleuth whom Hammett eventually features in another three-dozen short stories. The fictional Continental Detective Agency appears again in Hammett's first full-length novel serialized in Black Mask (1927–28), a psychological thriller called Red Harvest. This book was followed within a year by a second, equally raw, and penetrating novel, the hard-boiled thriller The Dain Curse, which also features the now wildly popular "Op."

There was no real-life model for Samuel Spade, the hard-edged, no-nonsense investigator in Hammett's third and most successful mystery novel, The Maltese Falcon, serialized in Black Mask in 1929 and published in book form in 1930. Spade was an entirely new character, "a dream man" as Hammett wrote in the introduction to the book's 1934 edition, calling Spade someone "who wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander or client." Hammett created Sam Spade as an idealistic loner who wages a relentless search for truth and justice. Highly successful, The Maltese Falcon went through seven printings in its first year of publication.


As Hammett's fame and income increased, so did his drinking, gambling, and womanizing, which resulted in his moving his family from San Francisco to Los Angeles where his wife could be near her relatives. However, Hammett moved himself and his mistress, Nell Martin, to New York. Although he never lived with his family again and the Hammetts divorced in 1937, the family remained close, and he continued to support them financially. In contrast his relationship with Nell Martin, to whom he dedicated his fourth novel, The Glass Key, barely lasted to the book's publication date in 1931. The Glass Key is a tale of political intrigue that investigates the abuse of power, politics, and social influence, a nagging concern that was to come back to haunt Hammett's post–World War II years.

In the 1930s Hammett began to split his time between New York City and Hollywood, enjoying New York's social life and the Hollywood movie industry. He discovered a talent for writing screenplays and mingled with movie stars and fellow authors. It was during a party at producer Daryl Zanuck's Hollywood mansion that Hammett was introduced to author Lillian Hellman, with whom he began a long love affair. Although over time they lived separate lives and each had other lovers, they shared a mutual respect for each other and each other's writing. Hammett encouraged Hellman to write what would become her most famous play, The Children's Hour (1934), and she was Hammett's inspiration for the rich and witty Nora Charles in Hammett's best seller, The Thin Man.

Later Life

Like many other liberals in Hollywood in the 1930s, Hammett had joined the Communist Party (political party that advocates the public ownership of property) to fight for civil rights and equality. His works reflect these political leanings, with his novels and short stories featuring the struggles of the poor but honest man dedicated to fighting injustice and corruption. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Hammett didn't hesitate to reenlist in the army in 1942, and despite his age and history of tuberculosis the army stationed him in the Aleutian Islands where he worked as the editor of an army newspaper and trained young newsmen.

After serving honorably and resuming civilian life in the 1940s, Hammett found himself ensnared in the anti-Communist hysteria of the Cold War (1947–91). Hammett became president of the Civil Rights Congress, a controversial American activist group that provided bail money for Communist and Socialist party members when they were arrested. Many of these members were accused of conspiracy. Hammett was called to testify in federal court about bail fund contributors. When he took the Fifth Amendment in order to avoid providing information about them, the court found him in contempt. Hammett was sentenced to six months in jail, which he served.

As a result of his political activities that made him personally controversial, radio networks canceled shows based on characters Hammett created. Also Hammett was slapped with a $100,000 tax lien by the federal government, which tied up his royalties and future earnings. His friends, Sam and Helen Rosen, offered him the use of a cottage on their property, which was located near Lillian Hellman's farm. He lived in the cottage until 1955 when he had a heart attack. Surviving but weakened, he moved into Hellman's Upper East Manhattan apartment. He died at age 67 on January 10, 1961, from lung cancer and emphysema and, despite objections by J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), he was buried as a veteran in Arlington National Cemetery.

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