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Dashiell Hammett’s Strange Career

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Arts & Culture

Dashiell Hammett

In a 1929 interview with the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dashiell Hammett described his first attempts at “breadwinning.” After dropping out of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute at 14, he worked as a messenger boy for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, then as a junior clerk (“very junior”) in an advertising office, a stockbroker, a timekeeper in a cannery and a machine shop, and a stevedore until it became “too strenuous”—at which point he responded to an “enigmatic want-ad” and was hired as an operative in the Baltimore office of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. From 1915 to 1918 and from 1920 to 1922, Hammett worked as an op. Despite the modest pay, he “liked gumshoeing better than anything I had done before” and “sleuthing” even more. In 1921, at 27, he got married and had a child. He needed money, and so he “decided to become a writer,” he told the Eagle. “It was a good idea. Having had no experience whatever in writing, except writing letters and reports, I wasn’t handicapped by exaggerated notions of the difficulties ahead.”

There would be difficulties ahead, one of which would be maintaining that pragmatic attitude towards writing. But when he gave this interview, things were going well. His first novels, Red Harvest and The Dain Curse, had been published by Knopf, and he had turned in a manuscript of The Maltese Falcon, which he told his editor was “the best thing I’ve done so far.” Reviewers praised Red Harvest’s liveliness and dialogue, and The Dain Curse, though not as celebrated, made the New York Times Christmas list. The books were selling well. Hollywood was interested.

In The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett, Nathan Ward considers “exactly how he made his famous transformation from Pinkerton operative to master of the American detective story.” Why is equally important. The simple answer is that Hammett was chronically ill and couldn’t do much else. By the age of 28, he had suffered a series of ailments. In June 1918, at 24, he had enlisted in the army and was stationed at Camp Meade, outside Baltimore. In October, he caught the Spanish flu, which caused (or possibly provoked a latent) tuberculosis, and in May 1919 he was honorably discharged. He spent the next year living with his parents, either in bed or out on the town, smoking, drinking, and “helling around.” In a period of good health, he moved to Spokane, Washington, and worked at a Pinkerton outpost before he fell ill again: he was short of breath, and at six foot one inches and around 130 pounds, he was weak and emaciated. He was sent to a Tacoma hospital, where he met Josephine Annis Dolan (who went by Jose), a pretty nurse from Anaconda, Montana. Hammett was transferred to a hospital outside San Diego, from which he wrote her fervent letters: “I didn’t intend doing this—writing you a second letter before I got an answer to my first—but that’s the hell of being in love with a vamp, you do all sorts of things.” Jose soon discovered she was pregnant, and within a few months they were married and living in San Francisco. Hammett went back to sleuthing, but his “health continued to go blooey,” his weight dropped further, and in February 1922, he quit Pinkerton and took up writing.

There is an accidental, unromantic quality to Hammett’s career that is at odds with the teleology so common to artistic biography. Ward wonders how Hammett came to writing “so late, seemingly without the customary years of practice and ambition.” He suggests that composing “scores of operative reports” for Pinkerton taught Hammett “to write pithily and with appreciation for the language of street characters,” and having his “reports edited or rewritten by supervisors” provided “a kind of literary training.” But the notion that it is “customary” for writers to have “years of practice” rests on certain assumptions about class and calling. None of the familiar models of authorship—romantic genius, modernist genius, mass-market hack—can “explain” Hammett. He was an inspired craftsman on the border of the popular and the belletristic. The fact that Hammett was “a poor boy with a grade-school education,” as Diane Johnson put it in her 1981 biography, makes his achievements impressive, but it doesn’t help us place them. There is plenty that is interesting about Hammett’s childhood, and the part most relevant to his success as a writer isn’t his poverty or his limited education but his wide reading. He was, in Ward’s description, “an incorrigible reader and prowler of public libraries whose tastes ran from swashbucklers and dime Westerns to edifying works of European philosophy and technical expertise.” Biographers and critics are awed by Hammett’s going so far with so little formal education, but his reading, confidence, and adventurousness offset any deficit in schooling.

Nothing in his childhood predicted his success. Samuel Dashiell Hammett was born in 1894 at his family’s tobacco farm in rural Maryland. He was named after his paternal grandfather, Samuel Biscoe Hammett, and his mother’s Huguenot ancestors, the De Schiells. Until his late twenties, he went by Sam. His father, Richard, struggled to hold a job. After losing a county election, Richard moved the family to Baltimore, where he worked as a tram conductor and started a seafood business that never amounted to much. Sam’s mother, Annie, worked occasionally as a private nurse, but weakness and a chronic cough kept her at home most of the time. Richard, who drank heavily and was known as a sharp dresser and a ladies’ man, abused Annie. In financial distress, he pulled his son out of school in order to help the family. Sam worked a series of odd jobs while passing his free time fishing, hunting, drinking, and seducing. In 1915, the year he started at Pinkerton, he caught gonorrhoea for the first time. His formative years, spent not in elite institutions and circles but in labor and leisure, did not give rise to the kind of elaborate psychodrama that the modernist generation perfected—that all came only after he was famous.

When, in 1922, Hammett started writing for The Smart Set, founded and edited by H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, he showed off his sophistication and sensitivity to language. In his delightful, aphoristic piece “From the Memoirs of a Private Detective,” he recalled a supervisor changing “voracious” to “truthful” on the grounds that the client might not understand the former, and changing “simulate” to “quicken” for the same reason. (Hammett seems to have misremembered or mistyped the original words: are they not more likely to have been “veracious” and “stimulate”?) Whether these particular edits actually happened, Hammett knew the strength of his own writing. “I was a pretty good sleuth,” he told his Eagle interviewer, “but a bit overrated because of the plausibility with which I could explain away my failures, proving them inevitable and no fault of mine . . . Thanks to my ability to write pleasing and convincing reports, my reputation was always a little more than I deserved.”

Plausibility would be central to Hammett’s career in fiction: as a former op, he knew—or claimed to know—more about crime, detection, and the mechanics of both than any other writer in the genre. Hammett’s first crime story, “The Road Home,” appeared in The Black Mask (also founded by Mencken and Nathan) under the pseudonym Peter Collinson. (Peter Collins was an old carnival name meaning nobody, so Hammett had made himself the son of nobody.) By 1924, he was hailed by the magazine’s new editor, Phil Cody, as “one of our most popular authors.” What distinguished Hammett’s stories is that they were “closer to earth” (as he would describe one of his plots) than Sherlock Holmes-style tales. His detectives weren’t gentlemen solving riddles but tough, slangy, sometimes sordid types who worked hard, paid attention to the right things and weren’t afraid of violence. The nameless Continental Op, a “little block of a man” who narrates twenty-eight of Hammett’s stories as well as his first two novels, says things like: “I don’t like eloquence. If it isn’t effective enough to pierce your hide, it’s tiresome, and if it is effective enough, it muddles your thoughts.” Hammett’s style was in the jokes and in the pace. His detectives were a step ahead of readers not because they were innately smarter but because they’d been doing this for a while.

“I found I could sell the stories easily when it became known I had been a Pinkerton man,” Hammett said. “People thought my stuff was authentic.” He claimed to have been involved in several high-profile cases, including a mission to break up the Anaconda Copper miners’ strike in Butte, Montana; an investigation into the theft of gold aboard the SS Sonoma; and the defence of Fatty Arbuckle, who was charged with the rape and murder of Virginia Rappe. In his 1981 biography, Richard Layman called Hammett’s stories about this period “implausible” and “suspect,” and Ward goes further, concluding, with the support of archival research, that Hammett either had a minor role or was, owing to his infirmity, not involved at all.

Even if Hammett had done everything he said he did, he still wouldn’t have been able to write about it—not directly, at least. Pinkerton was skittish about former employees writing about their work. Ward tells of Charlie Siringo, an ex-op whose attempts to publish a memoir were stymied by the agency. Citing the confidentiality agreement Siringo had signed, the agency demanded that he give another name to his employer. When Siringo finally published A Cowboy Detective and Further Adventures of a Cowboy Detective (1912), about his work for the “world-famous” “Dickenson Agency,” he was so embittered by the meddling that he quickly followed with Two Evil Isms: Pinkertonism and Anarchism (1915), a damning account of Pinkerton’s corruption (he was paid to commit voter fraud) and its ignominious history of strike-breaking. But Hammett was writing fiction, not memoir, and so names had already been changed.

During the auspicious beginning to Hammett’s writing career, conditions at home were difficult: in late 1924 or early 1925, his tuberculosis flared up and he began living apart from his wife and daughter. That arrangement that would continue in various forms for many years. In the autumn of 1925, Jose became pregnant with their second daughter. When his editor refused to raise his rate, Hammett placed a classified ad (“and I can write,” it concluded) and was hired as the advertising manager for Albert Samuels Jewellers, which quadrupled the family’s income. Hammett embraced his new occupation (and a fetching red-haired colleague named Peggy O’Toole, the inspiration for Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon), but after just five months on the job, he collapsed at the office in a pool of blood: he had hepatitis on top of TB, and the Veterans’ Bureau deemed him 100 percent disabled. Even so, Hammett was intent on building his reputation as an ad man, if also a bit defensive about it—in an essay called “Advertising is Literature” which he wrote for Western Advertising, he argued that “every man who works with words for effects is a literary worker.”

After poor health made it impossible for Hammett to report to the jeweller’s office, Joseph Shaw, the latest editor of Black Mask (he would drop “The” from the title), lured him back with an offer of a raise and the opportunity to write longer stories. An eight-year period of astonishing productivity began. Hammett dashed off a novella called The Big Knockover, which Shaw serialised, and started reviewing mysteries for the Saturday Review of Literature. The first chapters of “The Cleansing of Poisonville” appeared in Black Mask, and Hammett sent the full manuscript to East Coast publishing houses. Blanche Knopf replied that they were “keen,” though they felt he should remove some of the violence and change the “hopeless” title. The book came out as Red Harvest in 1929, followed by The Dain Curse (1929), The Maltese Falcon (1930), The Glass Key (1931), and The Thin Man (1934), along with movie adaptations of Red Harvest, The Maltese Falcon, and The Thin Man.

Hammett’s aspirations were growing. As early as 1925, he had half-joked to Phil Cody at The Black Mask that straightening out some confusion over rights would “save my literary executors trouble.” In 1928, he told Blanche that he was “one of the few—if there are any more—moderately literate people who take the detective story seriously,” predicting that “some day somebody’s going to make ‘literature’ out of it.” He shared his plans for a stream-of-consciousness detective novel that would “carry the reader along with the detective, showing him everything as it is found.” By 1930, Hammett had become high-handed. When he received an invoice from Knopf for excess corrections on The Glass Key, he replied that someone in their editorial department “simply edited the Jesus out of my MS” and they were “lucky I haven’t billed you for the trouble I was put to unediting it.” His arrogance was warranted: his influence on crime fiction was immediate, profound, and far-reaching. In 1935, Hammett was invited to a Los Angeles party honoring Gertrude Stein, who wanted to meet the master of the modern detective story. He wasn’t a mere genre writer; he was a modernist innovator. The Maltese Falcon, which opens with a beautiful woman walking into a PI’s office with a fat bankroll and a sketchy story, reads as the ur-text of modern American crime fiction. It is what Chandler would describe, in a tribute to his master, as a scene “that seemed never to have been written before.”

Hammett would soon stop writing—or, as his daughter Jo more accurately put it, stop publishing. Newly rich, he partied hard and spent profligately. And he would just as soon be overshadowed by Chandler, who had more discernibly lofty concerns. Chandler doubted Hammett “had any deliberate artistic aims whatever; he was trying to make a living by writing something he had firsthand information about. This wasn’t exactly the case, but it affirmed Hammett’s image as no-nonsense ex-dick. Writing was the closest thing Hammett had to a calling, but no calling comes without professional demands and anxieties, and Hammett wasn’t sufficiently interested in the rewards to keep up the travails. “I am long and lean and greyheaded, and very lazy,” he wrote to The Black Mask in 1924, at 30. “I have no ambition at all in the usual sense of the word.”

People ask two questions about Hammett: why did he start writing, and why did he stop? Ward answers the first question to the extent that it can be answered, and he wisely avoids the second, to which Hammett already provided an answer, however inadequate: “I stopped writing because I found I was repeating myself. It’s the beginning of the end when you discover you have style.” Hammett didn’t publish anything in the 26 years between The Thin Man and his death, but he wasn’t idle: he drank prodigiously; he edited his lover Lillian Hellman’s plays; he joined the Communist Party; he taught a mystery writing class; he joined the army (again); he stopped drinking; he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, found guilty of contempt of court, and sent to prison; he maintained relationships with Jose and his daughters, and with Lillian, who became more of a friend than a lover; he had other lovers; he adored his grandchildren; he fished, and made his own fishing lures; he took up sketching and photography; he read. There is tragedy in his not-writing only in that he tried. He struggled for decades to finish a novel, Tulip, and never did.

He came to writing as it suited him and went away from it as it ceased to. ‘The heroism of his life lay not in his Horatio Alger success,” Diane Johnson wrote, “but in the long years after success, when money and gifts were gone. It is the long blank years that prove the spirit.”

Anne Diebel taught for eight years at Columbia. She now works as a private investigator.