Dashiell Hammett

From New World Encyclopedia

Dashiell Hammett
Dashiell Hammett "Thin Man" portrait (cropped).jpg
Dashiell Hammett
Born Samuel Dashiell Hammett
May 27 1894(1894-05-27)
Saint Mary's County, Maryland
Died January 10 1961 (aged 66)
New York City, New York
Occupation Novelist
Nationality United States
Writing period 1929-1951
Genres Hardboiled crime fiction,
detective fiction
Influenced Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, Mickey Spillane, Ross Macdonald, John D. MacDonald, Robert B. Parker, Sara Paretsky, Lawrence Block, James Ellroy, Sue Grafton, Walter Mosley, William Gibson, Rian Johnson, Richard K. Morgan

Samuel Dashiell Hammett (May 27, 1894 - January 10, 1961) was an American author of hardboiled 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 (Red Harvest and The Dain Curse).

Hardboiled crime fiction is a literary style distinguished by an unsentimental portrayal of crime, violence, and sex. Pioneered by Carroll John Daly in the mid-1920s, hardboiled crime fiction was popularized by Hammett over the course of the decade. From its earliest days, hardboiled fiction was published in and closely associated with so-called pulp magazines, most famously Black Mask. Later, many hardboiled novels were published by houses specializing in paperback originals, also colloquially known as "pulps." Consequently, "pulp fiction" is often used as a synonym for hardboiled crime fiction.

The hardboiled detective—originated by Daly's Terry Mack and Race Williams and epitomized by Hammett's Sam Spade and Chandler's Philip Marlowe—not only solves mysteries, like his "softer" counterparts, he (and often these days, she) confronts danger and engages in violence on a regular basis. The hardboiled detective also has a characteristically tough attitude–in fact, Spade and Marlowe are two of the primary fictional models for the attitude that has come to be known as "attitude": cool, cocky, flippant. Spade was a departure from Hammett's nameless and less than glamorous detective, The Continental Op. Sam Spade combined several features of previous detectives, most notably his cold detachment, keen eye for detail, and unflinching determination to achieve his own justice. He is the man who has seen the wretched, the corrupt, the tawdry side of life but still retains his "tarnished idealism."

Early life

Hammett was born on a farm called "Hopewell and Aim" off Great Mills Road, St. Mary's County, in southern Maryland.[1] His parents were Richard Thomas Hammett and Anne Bond Dashiell. (The Dashiells are an old Maryland family; the name is an Anglicization of the French De Chiel and is pronounced "da-SHEEL," not "DASH-el".) He grew up in Philadelphia and Baltimore. "Sam," as he was known before he began writing, left school when he was 13 years old and held several jobs before working for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. He served as an operative for the Pinkerton Agency from 1915 to 1921, with time off to serve in World War I. However, the agency's role in union strike-breaking eventually disillusioned him.[2]

During World War I, Hammett enlisted in the United States Army and served in the Motor Ambulance Corps. However, he became ill with the Spanish flu and later contracted tuberculosis. He spent the war as a patient in Cushman Hospital, Tacoma, Washington. While hospitalized he met and married a nurse, Josephine Dolan, and had two daughters, Mary Jane (1921) and Josephine (1926). Shortly after the birth of their second child, Health Services nurses informed Josephine that due to Hammett's tuberculosis, she and the children should not live with him. So they rented a place in San Francisco. Hammett would visit on weekends, but the marriage soon fell apart. Hammett still supported his wife and daughters financially with the income he made from his writing.

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

Later years

From 1929 to 1930 Dashiell was romantically involved with Nell Martin, an author of short stories and several novels. He dedicated The Glass Key to her, and in turn, she dedicated her novel Lovers Should Marry to Hammett.

In 1931, Hammett embarked on a 30-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.[3] As a member of the League of American Writers, he served on its Keep America Out of War Committee in January 1940 during the period of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.[4]

Service in World War Two

In 1942, after Pearl Harbor, Hammett enlisted in the United States Army. Though he was a disabled veteran of World War I who suffered from tuberculosis, he pulled strings in order to be admitted to the service. He spent most of World War II as an Army Sergeant in the Aleutian Islands, where he edited an Army newspaper. He came out of the war suffering from emphysema. As a corporal in 1943, he co-authored The Battle of the Aleutians with Cpl. Robert Colodny under the direction of Infantry Intelligence Officer, Major Henry W. Hall.

Post-war political activity

After the war, Hammett returned to political activism, "but he played that role with less fervor than before."[5] He was elected President of the Civil Rights Congress of New York on June 5, 1946 at a meeting held at the Hotel Diplomat in New York City, and "devoted the largest portion of his working time to CRC activities."[5] In 1946, a bail fund was created by the CRC "to be used at the discretion of three trustees to gain the release of defendants arrested for political reasons."[6] Those three trustees were Hammett, who was chairman, Robert W. Dunn, and Frederick Vanderbilt Field, "millionaire Communist supporter."[6] On April 3, 1947, the CRC was designated a Communist front group on the Attorney General's List of Subversive Organizations, as directed by U.S. President Harry S. Truman’s Executive Order 9835.[7]

Imprisonment and the blacklist

The CRC's bail fund gained national attention on November 4, 1949, when bail in the amount of "$260,000 in negotiable government bonds" was posted "to free eleven men appealing their convictions under the Smith Act for criminal conspiracy to teach and advocate the overthrow of the United States government by force and violence."[6] On July 2, 1951, their appeals exhausted, four of the convicted men fled rather than surrender themselves to Federal agents to begin serving their sentences. "At that time the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, issued subpoenas for the trustees of the CRC bail fund in an attempt to learn the whereabouts of the fugitives...".[6] Hammett testified on July 9, 1951 in front of United States District Court Judge Sylvester Ryan, facing questioning by U.S. District Attorney Irving Saypol, described by Time as "the nation's number one legal hunter of top Communists."[6] During the hearing Hammett refused to provide the information the government wanted, specifically, the list of contributors to the bail fund, "people who might be sympathetic enough to harbor the fugitives."[6] Instead, on every question regarding the CRC or the bail fund, Hammett took the Fifth Amendment, refusing to even identify his signature or initials on CRC documents the government had subpoenaed. As soon as his testimony concluded, Hammett was immediately found guilty of contempt of court.[6][8][9][10]

During the 1950s he was investigated by Congress (see McCarthyism), testifying on March 26, 1953 before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Although he testified to his own activities, he refused to cooperate with the committee, and was blacklisted.


On January 10, 1961, Hammett died in New York City's Lenox Hill Hospital, of lung cancer, diagnosed just two months prior to his death. As a veteran of two World Wars, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.


In his early short stories, Hammett's protagonist is a detective who goes by no name other than "The Continental Operative." These stories employ a simple investigative formula. His writing was composed largely of minimalist sentences, and a steady accumulation of evidence. These stories culminated in the two Continental Op novels, Red Harvest and The Dain Curse. In Red Harvest, Hammett achieved a "poetry of violence" as the Continental Op took a hand in the purging of mob bosses from a corrupt mining town. The Dain Curse was a more straightforward murder mystery as everyone close to a young woman met their demise, leading to the twisted mind of the murderer.

Later Novels

As Hammett's literary style matured, he relied less and less on the super-criminal and turned more to the kind of realistic, hardboiled fiction that characterizes The Maltese Falcon or The Thin Man.

The Thin Man

The Thin Man was Hammett's last novel. Lillian Hellman, his longtime lover, in an introduction to a compilation of Hammett's five novels, reflected on several reasons for Hammett's retirment as a novelist:

I have been asked many times over the years why he did not write another novel after The Thin Man. I do not know. I think, but I only think, I know a few of the reasons: he wanted to do a new kind of work; he was sick for many of those years and getting sicker. But he kept his work, and his plans for work, in angry privacy and even I would not have been answered if I had ever asked, and maybe because I never asked is why I was with him until the last day of his life.

The story is set in Prohibition-era New York City. The main characters are a former private detective, Nick Charles, and his clever young wife, Nora. Nick, son of a Greek immigrant, has given up his career since marrying Nora, a wealthy socialite, and he now spends most of his time cheerfully getting drunk in hotel rooms and speakeasies. Nick and Nora have no children, but they do own a schnauzer named Asta, changed to a wire-haired fox terrier for the movies.

Charles is drawn, mostly against his will, into investigating a murder. The case brings them in contact with a rather grotesque family, the Wynants, and also with an assortment of policemen and low-lifers. As they attempt to solve the case, Nick and Nora share a great deal of banter and snappy dialogue, along with copious amounts of alcohol. The characters of Nick and Nora are often thought to reflect the personalities of Hammett and Hellman.


In addition to the significant influence his novels and stories had on film, Hammett "is now widely regarded as one of the finest mystery writers of all time"[11] and was called, in his obituary in the New York Times, "the dean of the... 'hard-boiled' school of detective fiction."[12]

In The Simple Art of Murder, Hammett's successor in the field, Raymond Chandler, summarized Hammett's accomplishments:

Hammett was the ace performer... He is said to have lacked heart; yet the story he himself thought the most of [The Glass Key] is the record of a man's devotion to a friend. He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.


Hammett's success as a writer is overshadowed by the success that came from the film adaptations of his most popular works, The Maltest Falcon and The Thin Man. The Maltese Falcon was the subject of a 1931 Warner Brothers production, but became famous as a vehicle for Humphrey Bogart in the 1941 version directed by John Huston, and co-starring Mary Astor, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet.

The Thin Man became a successful film franchise for William Powell and Myrna Loy, although only the first film was based on Hammett's novel.


  • Red Harvest (published on February 1, 1929)
  • The Dain Curse (July 19, 1929)
  • The Maltese Falcon (February 14, 1930)
  • The Glass Key (April 24, 1931)
  • Creeps by Night; Chills and Thrills (Anthology edited by Hammett, 1931)[13]
  • Woman in the Dark: A Novel of Dangerous Romance (published in Liberty magazine in three installments in 1933)
  • The Thin Man (January 8, 1934)
  • The Big Knockover (a collection of short stories)
  • The Continental Op (a collection of four short stories with "Meet the Continental Op," an introduction by Ellery Queen) (published as Dell mapback #129
  • The Return of the Continental Op (a collection of five short stories with "The Return of the Continental Op," an introduction by Ellery Queen) (published as Dell mapback #154)
  • Nightmare Town (a collection of four short stories) (published with an introduction titled "A Letter from Ellery Queen" as Dell mapback #379)
  • Blood Money (two novellas) (published as Dell mapback #53 and #486)
  • A Man Called Spade (five short stories, only three Sam Spade stories, with "Meet Sam Spade," an introduction by Ellery Queen) (published as Dell mapback #90 and #411)
  • Dead Yellow Women (four Continental Op stories, two other stories, and an introduction titled "A Letter from Ellery Queen") (published as Dell mapback #308)
  • Hammett Homicides (four Continental Op stories, two other stories, and an introduction titled "A Letter from Ellery Queen") (published as Dell mapback #223)
  • The Creeping Siamese (three Continental Op stories, three other stories and an introduction titled "A Letter from Ellery Queen") (published as Dell mapback #538)

Published as

  • Complete Novels (Steven Marcus, ed.) (Library of America, 1999) ISBN 9781883011673.
  • Crime Stories and Other Writings (Steven Marcus, ed.) (Library of America, 2001) ISBN 9781931082006.


  1. Shoemaker, Sandy, Tobacco to Tomcats: St. Mary's County since the Revolution, StreamLine Enterprises, Leonardtown, Maryland. Retrieved February 19, 2009 
  2. Thomas Heise, "'Going blood-simple like the natives': Contagious Urban Spaces and Modern Power in Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest," Modern Fiction Studies 51(3) (Fall 2005): 506
  3. FAQ at the CPUSA site Retrieved February 19, 2009.
  4. Franklin Folsom, Days of Anger, Days of Hope, (University Press of Colorado, 1994, ISBN 0870813323)
  5. 5.0 5.1 Layman, Richard (1981). Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 206. ISBN 0151814597. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 Richard Layman, Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981. ISBN 0151814597), 219-223
  7. Enid Nemy. Frederick Vanderbilt Field, Wealthy Leftist, Dies at 94. The New York Times. Retrieved February 19, 2009.
  8. Metress, Christopher (1994). The Critical Response to Dashiell Hammett. Greenwood Press. 
  9. Johnson, Diane (1983). Dashiell Hammett, a Life. Random House. 
  10. Petri Liukkonen. Dashiell Hammett. Books and Writers. Retrieved February 19, 2009.
  11. Layman, Richard (1981). Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 239. ISBN 0151814597. 
  12. Richard Layman and Matthew J. Bruccoli (2002). Hardboiled Mystery Writers: A Literary Reference. Carroll & Graf, 225. ISBN 0786710292. 
  13. Bleiler, Everett (1948). The Checklist of Fantastic Literature. Chicago: Shasta Publishers, 140. 
Portal Dashiell Hammett Portal

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Folsom, Franklin. Days of Anger, Days of Hope. University Press of Colorado, 1994. ISBN 0870813323
  • Hammett, Jo. A Daughter Remembers. Carroll and Graf Publishers, 2001. ISBN 978-0786708925
  • Layman, Richard and Matthew J. Bruccoli. Hardboiled Mystery Writers: A Literary Reference. Carroll & Graf, 2002. ISBN 0786710292
  • Layman, Richard. Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981. ISBN 0151814597

External links

All links retrieved January 25, 2024.

  • Library of Congress lecture – by Hammett estate trustee and biographer Richard Layman on the 75th anniversary of The Maltese Falcon
  • Checklist – of where every Hammett story appeared
  • The Case of Dashiell Hammett – (KQED-TV, San Francisco, 1982). Written and produced by Stephen Talbot. Winner of Peabody Award and a special Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America.


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