1894, marks the birthday of detective novelist Dashiell Hammett.
Born in St. Mary's County, Maryland, he is the son of Richard Hammett, a
farmer and politician, and Annie Bond Dashiell, a nurse who spent most of
her time tending to her three children. The family moved to
Philadelphia for a while before settling in Baltimore, where Hammett studied
at the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.
Hammett left school at the age of 14 to help support the family, after
which he held a series of jobs, ranging from messenger boy, newspaper boy,
clerk, timekeeper, yardman, and machine operator to stevedore. He
eventually became an operative for the Pinkerton Detective Agency.
He served as a sergeant in an ambulance corps during World War I when
Spanish influenza was spreading quickly throughout U.S. military
installations. Hammett contracted tuberculosis. "I have always
had good health until I contracted influenza, complicated by bronchial
pneumonia treatment," Hammett told his doctor in 1919. He spent the
remainder of the war in the hospital, and for much of his life he suffered
from ill health.
the war, Hammett turned to writing. By the late 1920s, he had become
the unquestioned master of American detective-story fiction. His
style was labeled "hard-boiled" because it contained almost no
extraneous detail. In one
story, he describes a woman by writing, "Her eyes were blue, her mouth red,
her teeth white, and she had a nose. Without getting steamed up over
the details, she was nice."
Along with fellow mystery writer Raymond Chandler, Hammett represented
the early realistic vein in detective stories, where his tough-as-nails
heroes are forced to confront violence, knowing full well its corrupting
power. In his novels, Hammett paints a nebulous picture of American
society where greed, brutality, and treachery are the major driving forces
behind human actions.
Often called the father of the modern American detective story, Hammett
gained his knowledge of crime and undercover work from his years with Pinkerton before he ever dreamed of turning to writing at
the age of 28. Many of his first short stories featured the Continental Op, a
nameless private detective who became the archetype for a generation of
hard-boiled mystery detectives. Hammett's detective novels
The Big Knockover, The Dain Curse (1929), The Maltese Falcon
(1930), and The Thin Man (1932).
In The Maltese Falcon, hero Sam Spade, a famous
fictional detective who was played by
Humphrey Bogart in the film version of the novel, was as hard-boiled a
gumshoe as they came. Critics consider
the 1941 movie, directed by John Huston, to be a masterpiece, not only
because of its impressive cast, but also because of the story behind it,
often called the greatest detective novel ever
written. In addition to Bogart, the film starred Sydney Greenstreet,
Mary Astor, Elisha Cook Jr., Ward Bond, and Peter Lorre.
"Samuel Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting V under the
more flexible V of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another
smaller V. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The V motif was
picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a
hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down - from high flat temples - in
a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond
satan." - from The Maltese Falcon
his long-held communist beliefs, Hammett became a target during Senator
Eugene McCarthy's anti-Communist crusade. In 1951, he served five
months in prison rather than testifying at the trial of four other writers
accused of conspiracy. He was blacklisted by the House on Un-American
Activities Committee (HUAC). When the Internal Revenue Service claimed that
he owed a huge amount in tax deficiencies, the federal government attached
For a while, the State Department managed to keep his
books off the shelves of both American and European libraries. For the
rest of his life, Hammett lived in and around New York City, teaching
creative writing in the Jefferson School of Social Science from 1946 to
1956. Author Lillian Hellman, with whom he had a long and feisty
affair, cared for him in her Park Avenue apartment from 1956. Hellman
is sometimes unfairly blamed for his minimal writing output from 1934 to his
Dashiell Hammett--the greatest hard-boiled detective story writer
in history--died penniless of lung cancer on January 10, 1961.
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