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Dashiell Hammett

May 26, 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.

After the war, Hammett turned to writing.  By the late 1920s, he had become the unquestioned master of American detective-story fiction.  His literary 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 include 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

For 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 his income. 

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 death.

Dashiell Hammett--the greatest hard-boiled detective story writer in history--died penniless of lung cancer on January 10, 1961.

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