When I was a pre-adolescent spending summers in northern Canada, I read a lot of old detective fiction because it was there. When I’d got through the pile I read some of it over again, there being no library where I could go and get more. I didn’t reread Erle Stanley Gardner or Ellery Queen: I found them dry. But I did reread Dashiell Hammett.
What was it about these books that intrigued me as an avid but ignorant child reader? Their world was fast-paced, sharp-edged, and filled with zippy dialogue and words I’d never heard pronounced—slang words like “gunsel,” fancy words like “punctilious.” This was not the Agatha Christie sort of story—there were fewer clues, and these were more likely to be lies people told rather than cuff buttons they’d left strewn around. There were more corpses, with less importance bestowed on each: a new character would appear, only to be gunned down by a fire-spitting revolver. In a “clues” novel, everything depended on who was where; in a Hammett one, it was more likely to be who was who, given to disguises and false names as these folk were. The action was dispersed, not sealed up as in a nobody-leaves-this-house puzzle: dark mean streets were prowled, cars were driven at speed, people blew in from elsewhere and hid out and skipped town. Oddly enough, clothing was described in more detail than in many country-house murders—a feature I appreciated. There was a lot of drinking, of substances I had never heard of, and a great deal of smoking. As an eleven-year-old I found this world very, very sophisticated.
It’s odd to think that in July of 1951, while I was trying to figure out why a man would turn a strange shade of yellow, with bloodshot eyes, while telling a woman that maybe he loved her and maybe she loved him but he wasn’t going to play the sap for her, the author of the books that so fascinated me was about to be jailed. The McCarthy Red Scare was at its height, and Hammett had been called into US district court as a representative of the Civil Rights Congress Bail Fund to be questioned about four fugitives. Notori-ously, he refused to testify. He wouldn’t even give his name. The man whose books had been legends in their time had now become a legend of a different kind: exemplary, not only of a certain kind of American fiction, but also of a certain kind of American life.
Forty years after his death, Dashiell Hammett continues to intrigue. While he was still alive, Raymond Chandler wrote his famous 1944 tribute to him, “The Simple Art of Murder.” After his death, his companion of many years and literary executrix, Lillian Hellman, served him up as a dreamlife portrait in her 1973 memoir, Pentimento. Attempting to control the legend, Hellman then authorized a biography; there have been several unauthorized biographies as …