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.