Dashiell Hammett

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Dashiell Hammett

"Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people who do it for a reason, not just to provide a corpse; and with means at hand, not with handwrought dueling pistols, curare, and tropical fish."

Raymond Chandler, in The Simple Art of Murder

Samuel Dashiell Hammett (May 27, 1894January 10, 1961) was an American author of "hard-boiled" detective novels and short stories. Among the enduring characters he created are Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon), Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man), and the Continental Op (The Dain Curse).


Early life

Hammett was born in St. Mary's County in Southern Maryland on the Western Shore of Maryland. His parents were Richard Thomas and Annie Bond Dashiell (the name being an Americanization of the French De Chiel). "Dash" left school when he was 13 years old and held several jobs before becoming an operative for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.

During World War I, Hammett joined the American Field Service in France but did not volunteer for dangerous ambulance duty. After entering the U.S. Army, he was assigned to an ambulance company but he contracted tuberculosis and spent the war as a patient in a hospital in America.

After the war, he turned to drinking, advertising, and eventually, writing. His work at the detective agency provided him the inspiration for his writings.

His work

His work was published primarily in the pulp magazine Black Mask under the editorship of Joseph Shaw. Hammett's first story published in Black Mask was "The Road Home" under the pseudonym of Peter Collinson in December 1922. The Continental Op was introduced in the October 1923 issue of Black Mask in a story titled "Arson Plus." The Continental Op would eventually appear in 28 stories and two novels. In 1932, he also wrote the comic strip Secret Agent X-9, which was drawn by Alex Raymond.

Many of his books were adapted to film, most notably The Maltese Falcon (the 1941 film version, directed by John Huston). The dialogue in his novels was often incorporated verbatim into the screenplay. He was also asked to doctor scripts for Hollywood, which brought him even more money than his novels; however the situation of a script writer, as described in the essays of Raymond Chandler and in the film Barton Fink, was a source of deep frustration to him.

His own favorite among his novels is said to have been The Glass Key. His most bloody, and macabrely humorous work is Red Harvest a story of political corruption and gang war in the eponymously named city of 'Poisonville'.

In 1931, Hammett embarked on a thirty-year affair with playwright Lillian Hellman. He wrote his final novel in 1934, and devoted much of the rest of his life to left-wing activism. He was a strong anti-fascist throughout the 1930s and in 1937 he joined the American Communist Party. During the Red Scare of the 1950's he was blacklisted by Hollywood.

In 1942, Hammett enlisted in the United States Army after the United States entered World War II. Though he was a disabled veteran of WWI, and a victim of tuberculosis, he pulled strings in order to be admitted into service. He spent most of WWII as a sergeant in the Army in the Aleutian Islands, where he edited an Army newspaper.

Later years

After World War II, Hammett joined the New York Civil Rights Congress, a leftist organization that was considered by some to be a communist front. When four communists related to the organization were arrested, Hammett raised money for their bail bond. When the accused fled, he was subpoenaed about their whereabouts, and in 1951, he was imprisoned for 6 months for contempt of court after refusing to provide information to the court.

During the 1950s he was investigated by the Congress of the United States (see McCarthyism). Although he testified to his own activities and was blacklisted, he refused to divulge the identities of American communists.

Hammett died in Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. As a veteran of two World Wars, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.


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