Born in Maryland in 1894, Samuel Dashiell Hammett dropped out of school at fourteen. Over the next several years he held a string of menial jobs, from which he was usually fired.

In 1915, he responded to an intriguingly vague classified ad, and soon found himself employed as a Pinkerton detective. Around 1922 he decided to stop being a detective and start writing about them.

Appearing primarily in the pulp magazine Black Mask, Hammett's work soon became a favorite with readers. Bringing his real-life detective experience to his writing, he is today regarded as a founding father of the "hard-boiled" genre, as well as elevating detective fiction to the level of literature.

Many of his stories featured a pudgy, middle-aged operative of the Continental Detective Agency, known only as The Continental Op.  His best-known creation was Sam Spade, the tough, shifty detective of The Maltese Falcon. Like the Op, Spade was based in San Francisco, a city Hammett knew well. If a Hammett story mentioned a pawnshop or apartment building at a certain location, it probably existed, and possibly still does.

Hammett's writing career was short. He produced four novels and almost all of his short stories between 1922 and 1931, a span of barely nine years. A fifth novel (The Thin Man) followed in 1934. Then... nothing.

Why the long silence? Ironically, Hammett had come to loathe the hard-boiled genre that he had pioneered. He aspired to write mainstream novels that would rival those of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. It wasn't to be: Hammett barely published another word during the last 27 years of his life.

During the 1950s, Hammett's support of leftist causes brought the  attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and he was called upon to testify.  Hammett's refusal to name names resulted in five months behind bars. It also caused him to be blacklisted; his books were removed from libraries, and his radio shows cancelled.

A man of many contradictions, Hammett was a celebrity and a recluse, a writer so sucessful that he no longer needed to write, a Marxist who served America proudly in two World Wars, a wealthy man who was always broke, and a man who chose prison over revealing information that was nobody else's business.

Hounded by the IRS, he died near-penniless in 1961.

 

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

How the heck do you pronounce Hammett’s first name?

That’s easy: “Sam,” as in Samuel Dashiell Hammett.  He was “Sam” as a child, as a Pinkerton detective, and as a soldier in World War I.  When he began writing, he thought his middle name looked better on the page.  “Dashiell” was the Americanized spelling of an old family name and was pronounced “dah-SHEEL.”  Radio announcers further Americanized it to “DASH-ull.”  Most of Hammett’s friends by this time simply called him “Dash.”  When he returned to the army during World War II, however, his much-younger fellow soldiers called him “Pop.”

Hammett was born in Maryland?  Why have I read that he was born in Connecticut?

Because once bad information gets set down in print, other people read it and use that same bad information in their own books.

So Hammett was a real-life detective?

Hammett said so, as did his wife and quite a few former Pinkerton detectives. The typically tight-lipped Pinkerton Detective agency has never officially confirmed or denied it.

And he quit the detective game to become a writer?

Not exactly.  Hammett quit being a Pinkerton because his TB flared up, leaving him too sick and weak to do the job.  He took up writing because he needed to support his family in a way that wasn’t too physically exerting.

So then he became a rich, famous writer?

Famous, yes.  Rich, not at first.  Hammett soon became a favorite with the readers, but his paychecks were miniscule; the pulp magazines of the day paid about a penny a word. But as his experience grew, his fiction became longer and more confident.  He eventually moved on to novels, such as The Maltese Falcon.

How many novels did Sam Spade appear in?

Just one. Contrary to popular belief, Spade was not a series character, ala Philip Marlowe.  Hammett eventually wrote three short stories using the Spade character, and then there was the radio show, but there was only one novel: The Maltese Falcon.

How about Nick and Nora Charles?

Similar answer. Despite numerous movie sequels and a radio series, Hammett used the characters in one novel only: The Thin Man.

Radio shows?  Movies? Hammett must’ve been raking in the money!

For a while, he was.  But he spent it even faster than it came in.  Booze, gambling, women, the finest hotels, a chauffeur-driven limo.  By the 1950s, it was all gone.

Did Hammett write the radio versions of Sam Spade and The Thin Man?

The radio producers liked to imply that he did, but no.  Hammett often joked that his contribution was cashing his royalty checks promptly.

Is it true that Hammett wrote a comic strip?

Yes.  It was called Secret Agent X-9, and was intended to be a direct competitor to the popular Dick Tracy. The newspaper syndicate liked using Hammett’s famous name, but didn’t much care for his complex plots and morally ambiguous characters, which they felt weren’t appropriate for the comics.  Irritated by the syndicate’s constant interference, Hammett quit in disgust after about a year.  The strip continued for a time, but became bland and forgettable.

But Hammett’s novels were huge best sellers, right?

Hammett’s work sold well, but in the context of “detective novels,” which were then considered inferior to “real literature.”  The critical success of Falcon helped to erase that stigma.  The Thin Man was his biggest commercial success, partly because it was written in a more comedic tone that average readers of the day found more accessible.  But (except for when he was blacklisted as a communist) his works have never been out of print.

Hammett was a commie??

He was deeply disillusioned by the abuses of capitalism.  During his days as a Pinkerton, skull-cracking and even assassination were used as strikebreaking tools.  Initially he saw Marxism as a way for the working class to level the playing field.  In later years, however, he came to believe that communism (as it existed in the real world) was every bit as flawed and corrupt as capitalism, although he still lent his name to leftist causes.

Why did Hammett abandon his wife and kids?

“Abandon” may be too strong a word. He continued to love his wife, although in more of a “little sister” capacity.  He wrote to his daughters often, and visited occasionally.  He financially supported his family until his money evaporated in the 1950s.

Hammett originally moved to separate lodgings when his contagious TB flared up.  During this time, he realized that he wasn’t cut out to be the traditional “family man,” and continued to live apart even when his health improved.  He eventually entered into an on-again-off-again relationship with Lillian Hellman that would last the rest of his life.

Is it true Lillian Hellman destroyed Hammett’s writing career the same way Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles?

Not really.  By the time Hammett met Hellman, his active writing career was all but over.  With the exception of The Thin Man and a handful of short stories, he was already into the writer’s block that would plague him the rest of his life. Ironically, it was during this period that Hammett was at the height of his fame as a writer, despite the fact that he wasn’t writing much of anything.  From the time he met Hellman, he concentrated on helping launch her fledgling career as a playwright.

If he could no longer write books, why didn’t Hammett write movies instead?

He tried.  Hollywood wanted him badly, but he just couldn’t produce very much usable work.

Did Hammett write an autobiography?

The closest he ever came was a piece called “Tulip.”  The central character (“Pop”) is a former writer who admits that his life was full of interesting incidents, but has no intention of writing about them.  Appropriate to this sentiment, Hammett never finished the story.

Hammett was an exceptionally private man.  Even Lillian Hellman admitted she didn’t know much about his past.  Virtually nothing was written about his life until the 1970s, but by the 1980s, there were several biographies completed.  What is known about Hammett today came from letters and clippings saved by others.  Hammett himself saved nothing.

Who controls the Hammett estate? And whom should I contact to inquire about projects involving Hammett properties?

The history of the Hammett literary estate is complicated—a tangled tale involving political pressures, tax liens, mismanagement, copyright law, and, not surprisingly, Lillian Hellman. Happily, Hammett’s family has regained control of the bulk of his body of work, which is now jointly administered by a Literary Property Trust and the Hammett family.

 Inquiries relating to films or to Hammett’s five novels should be directed to Gelfman Schneider Literary Agents (cathy@gelfmanschneider.com ). 

Questions regarding Hammett’s short stories should go to the Joy Harris Literary Agency (adamreed@jhlitagent.com). Please send copies of all inquiries, as well as any to other questions, to Hammettqueries@gmail.com.

 

A  SHORT  BIOGRAPHY