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 biography1; there have been several unauthorized biographies as well. In 2001, there were three new additions to works by and about Hammett: The Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett, 1921–1960, edited by Richard Layman with Hammett’s granddaughter Julie M. Rivett; Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers, a personal memoir by Hammett’s second daughter, Josephine, who also supplied a foreword for the Letters; and Dashiell Hammett: Crime Stories & Other Writings, selected and edited by Steven Marcus.
The man who created and solved so many mysteries left quite a few of his own behind him, it seems: many have been the attempts to explicate him. Where did his talent come from? Why the extreme drinking, the reckless spending? Why the communism, in such a patriotic American? Why the sudden creative silence, and then that other silence, the one that landed him in jail? Did Lillian Hellman exhaust him, or was she on the contrary his right-hand gal and kindly keeper? These are the sorts of questions that have raised themselves over time.
Those who have read even a little about Hammett know the main outlines of the plot. It’s laid before us in condensed form at the end of Dashiell Hammett: Crime Stories & Other Writings, and again in the excellent summaries dividing the periods of his life in the Selected Letters, and yet again, in a different mode, in Jo Hammett’s memoir.
This last is exactly what the jacket says it is: a reminiscence presented in “straightforward prose, with unaffected charm.” It contains a lot of photos, and some new, suggestive information about Hammett’s family background. It also tells the story of how the photos came to light—one of those proverbial stashes of old cardboard boxes in the garage that turn out to be a treasure trove. Jo Hammett writes concisely, with much personal anecdote and wry observation. She sees her father from a necessarily intimate angle, and though she adored him, she also naturally resented his treatment of the family—of her mother Jose, her older sister Mary, and herself. Hammett wasn’t evil or violent, and he tried to send sufficient money; he gave the daughters lavish treats; he wrote them loving, funny letters; but he was seldom there.
Jo Hammett saves the largest part of her resentment for Lillian Hellman, who seems to have deserved it. Ms. Hammett tries her best to acknowledge Hellman’s virtues—she was smart, she had good taste, she took care of Hammett during his last, broke decade—but it costs her a lot of teeth-grinding to do so. Hellman, it seems, was close to being a mythomaniac, and a ruthless power player; gaining control of Hammett’s copyrights was one of her milder gambits. No Other Woman would have come out well from the daughter’s point of view, but this portrait of Hellman does raise a question: What did Hammett see in her? As his daughter says, he appreciated people who went too far, as he often did himself; and his admiration for attractive women who lied outrageously—so evident in The Maltese Falcon and elsewhere—predates Hellman. It’s another of Hammett’s enigmas, for otherwise he set great store by speaking honestly.
Samuel Dashiell Hammett was born in rural Maryland in 1894. As a boy he wanted to read all the books in the Baltimore public library, but he had to quit high school at the age of fourteen to help out with the shaky family finances. (His father, whom he didn’t like, was a spendthrift, drinker, sharp dresser, and womanizer; but unlike Hammett, who resembled him in all these respects, he was mean and stingy.) At twenty-one, Hammett got a job as a Pinkerton’s detective agency operative, which he left in 1918 to join the army. He suffered the first of many severe respiratory illnesses then. During one recuperation he married a nurse he met at the infirmary; then he signed on at Pinkerton’s once more, but his health broke down. It was then that he began writing crime stories for the pulps.2
Once Hammett had teamed up with the magazine Black Mask, an astonishing burst of creativity followed. He turned out stories at an amazing rate, followed by five highly successful novels, including Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, The Glass Key, and The Maltese Falcon, this last perhaps the best-known American crime novel of all time. By that time he was famous and rich, but he was also drinking and spending money, both at a prodigal rate. Then followed the liaison with Lillian Hellman and his silence as a writer. Later in the Thirties he became involved in the activities of the Communist Party of America, as did many who were appalled by the rise of fascism. That he had been a witness to violent union-busting during his Pinkerton days may also have played a part.3 After serving in the army during World War II—he edited an army paper in the Aleutians—he was caught in the Red Scare dragnet and jailed for contempt of court. His books and the radio shows based on them were blacklisted and the IRS went after him for back taxes. He came out of prison minus his health and his money, neither of which he ever regained. He died in 1961, at the age of sixty-six.
The Selected Letters was made possible by the same lucky garage find that enabled Jo Hammett to piece together her memoir. All of the letters are by Hammett: the answers to them have disappeared. Most of the letters are to women—his wife, his daughters, Lillian Hellman, other mistresses and women friends—either because women saved the letters, or because Hammett felt more comfortable writing to women than to men. Reading them is like reading the letters of anyone you don’t know—first names you can’t place, books you’ve never heard of, private jokes you don’t get—but then some bon mot or caustic remark will liven things up again. (“Bruce Lockwood, who has been borrowing money from me, sent me a dozen of his wife’s horrible watercolors, from which I’m supposed to select a couple to be gifted with.”) Many letters are ornamented with drawings or stuck with newspaper clippings; some are whimsical pieces of wordplay. They’re the letters of a man who loved to write, to flirt, and to amuse others. It’s plain to see why women liked him.
The letters have been meticulously edited, and among them are some documents that will be very helpful to anyone studying—for instance—American intellectual and political life of the Thirties and Forties. The letters to Hammett’s first daughter, Mary, in which he tries to answer her questions about the chief issues of the day—why support the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, what’s the scoop on Hitler—are particularly sober and thoughtful. The letters to Lillian Hellman show that the two of them had—whatever their respective failings—a deep-rooted, enduring, and often frisky relationship, though it’s somewhat unnerving to come across the tough and ambitious Hellman being addressed as “my little cabbage.”
The letters begin in 1921, with a series to Josephine Dolan, soon to become Hammett’s wife. Anyone who was around in the first half of the twentieth century will recognize the young-man-to-girlfriend style. He teases her and sweet-talks, and brags about how much hell he’s been raising. Presumably she scolded him about his health and teased him in return. It’s a sweet beginning.
Another sweet beginning is his letters to the editor of Black Mask. Already, in 1923, he’s making fun of himself: Creda Dexter in “The Tenth Clew” is described as looking like a kitten, but Hammett confesses to the Black Mask editor that her original looked “exactly like a young white-faced bull pup.” Then, he claims, his nerve failed him:
“Nobody will believe you if you write a thing like that,” I told myself. “They’ll think you’re trying to spoof them.” So, for the sake of plausibility, I lied about her….
But such gentle ridicule of the genre alternates with earnestness: in a 1928 letter to his book publisher, he says he wants to try adapting the “stream-of-consciousness method” to the detective story. “I’m one of the few—if there are any more—people moderately literate who take the detective story seriously,” he says.
I don’t mean that I necessarily take my own or anybody else’s seriously—but the detective story as a form. Some day somebody’s going to make “literature” out of it…and I’m selfish enough to have my hopes….
Dashiell Hammett: Crime Stories & Other Writings contains the foundation for those hopes. The “other writings” are two small and admired non-fiction pieces, “From the Memoirs of a Private Detective” and “Suggestions to Detective Story Writers.” The first is a string of anecdotes about human stupidity and bits of cynical, tongue-in-cheek wisdom reminiscent of Ambrose Bierce: “Pocket-picking is the easiest to master of all the criminal trades. Anyone who is not crippled can become an adept in a day.” The second—the “Suggestions”—displays the practical seriousness with which Hammett viewed his craft, while at the same time it’s hilariously scathing at the expense of other, sloppier detective story writers. “A pistol, to be a revolver, must have something on it that revolves,” he remarks. “‘Youse’ is the plural of ‘you.'” “A trained detective shadowing a subject does not ordinarily leap from doorway to doorway….”
This approach brings to mind that other American Samuel, Sam Clemens (Mark Twain), who so famously took the stuffing out of Fenimore Cooper’s standards of accuracy. Indeed, the two Samuels4 have a lot in common: the combination of steely-eyed observation of the dirty underbelly of America and the idealistic wish that it would live up to its founding principles, the deadpan humor, and above all the dedication to language. This last, in both, took the form of an attempt to capture the tone and cadence of the American vernacular in literature, of which Huckleberry Finn is surely the first fully triumphant example.
Seen in this light, Hammett, with his word-collecting and ear for slang dialects,5 is part of the project of American linguistic self-definition that began with Noah Webster’s 1783 Spelling Book and his later dictionary. The effort was continued through Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo of the Leatherstocking Tales, and gathered speed with various dialect and regional writers of the nineteenth century, as well as Whitman and his barbaric yawp. Owen Wister and his creation of the western—its ur-plot, its tall tales and talk—belongs here too, and Bret Harte, and many after them. The hard-boiled detective story lent itself to this sort of exploration, criminal slang being not only colorful but often indigenous.
If this is Hammett’s literary ancestry, or part of it, his subsequent family tree is equally noteworthy. He was an admirer of Sherwood Anderson, who wrote concisely about hitherto overlooked corners of small-town life. He respected Faulkner as one might respect a very bright but weird second cousin.6 He found Hemingway irritating, like a brother who is also a rival, and took little pokes at him—in “The Main Death” he has a particularly vacuous rich girl reading The Sun Also Rises. He must have found it gratifying to be called “better than Hemingway” in the 1930 publisher’s ad for The Maltese Falcon.
Like Wister’s Virginian, the grand-daddy of all westerns, Hammett’s work had incalculable influence. He was one of those writers whom everyone of a certain age read as a matter of course. He himself said, “I’ve been as bad an influence on American literature as anyone I can think of.” Raymond Chandler is the younger brother: he inherited the battered office furniture and the type of the romantic-loner detective, though Philip Marlowe is more of an intellectual than Sam Spade, and more fascinated with upholstery. Nathanael West was arguably a melancholy cousin. Elmore Leonard—who, like Hammett, began in magazines—has Hammett’s pace, descriptive eye, and dead-on ear for dialogue. Carl Hiassen has the outrageousness, the taste for the hilariously bizarre, and the manic inventiveness.7
The Hammett prize for experimenting with language in a criminal setting must surely go to Jonathan Lethem’s beguiling Motherless Brooklyn, in which the sleuth has Tourette’s syndrome. And there are many, many more. Even the pratfalling body pile-ups were inherited by an unlikely third cousin: read Hammett’s “Dead Yellow Women” or “The Big Knockover,” then the riot-in-the-bar sequence in the first chapter of Thomas Pynchon’s V, just for fun. The most recent addition is the fine Spanish thriller writer Pérez-Reverte, who pays direct homage to The Maltese Falcon.
Dashiell Hammett: Crime Stories & Other Writings takes us back to the beginning of the line. Twenty-four of the early magazine stories have been selected. In addition, there’s the manuscript of The Thin Man, much shorter and almost completely different from the published book. (No Nick and Nora Charles tossing back the booze in their chic apartment, no Asta the dog.) The stories give us a good look at the young Hammett staking out his territory. They’re best read one at a time, with pauses between, since too much at once dulls the edge. They are very much of their period and genre—“hard-boiled” was the term used of this kind of side-of-the-mouth crime fiction. (Hard-boiled eggs were what blue-collar workers had in their lunch boxes.) But despite their adherence to formulas it’s easy to see from the stories why Hammett rose so rapidly.
Low life and high life are his interests: each set is motivated largely by money, power, and sex, and each behaves badly, though the highlifes are less likely to have poor complexions, perhaps because they don’t eat at grease joints—about the only places in Hammett stories where people consume food. The cozy middle-class Norman Rockwell front-porch folks do not concern him; when their representatives appear, they are likely to be thugs in disguise, like the “affectionate old couple” with their twinkling eyes in “The House in Turk Street” who are fronting for a mob, or the entire population of the town of Izzard, in “Nightmare Town,” including the jolly banker and the kindly doctor, who are all part of a huge criminal conspiracy.8
“Realism” is a word often used to describe Hammett’s writing, but the stories are realistic only in their settings and details—the pimples on nasty youths, the dingy office furniture of the cheap private eyes—and in their forthright use of the vernacular. The dialogue was influenced by its period, when the wisecrack and the vaudeville one-liner were valued and a smart mouth like Dorothy Parker’s was an asset. The plots are Jacobean in their doubled and redoubled vengeance, and also in their carnage: they resemble multiple car crashes. This was the age of the Keystone Cops, when mayhem was first being portrayed on the screen,9 and surely some of the brawls and corpse-fests in Hammett were intended to be funny in this quasi-slapstick way. The exuberance of language, the relish with which seediness is described, the playing with aphorisms, the joy of bizarre invention—it’s a pleasure to imagine the young Hammett cutting loose with whatever rascally highjinks he could cook up and put over. The aim was not realism, but to make things seem real—“real as a dime,” as one narrator says of a far-fetched yarn he’s been reading.
For the pulp adventure-crime stories of this era are not real realism. Instead they’re romances in the Northrop Frye sense, with knights-errant disguised as detectives, and treasures with criminal-mastermind ogres guarding them. There are trolls in the guise of goons with huge chins, pasty faces, dead eyes, or other physical distortions, and threatened maidens who sometimes really are maidens—innocent heiresses transgressing social boundaries—but most likely instead femmes fatales with silver eyes or other enchantments. These latter turn into clawing cats or foulmouthed banshees when the hero calls their bluff. Quite often the spell-breaking words are “You are a liar,” or words to that effect; for like Sam Spade after him, the hero always resists female blandishments in pursuit of his higher mission. This mission is not exactly justice; it’s more like professionalism. The hero has a job to do and is good at his job. He’s a working man, and this kind of toughness and thoroughness gets Hammett’s respect. Also this kind of toughness, for toughness was a cardinal virtue for him.10
The hero who most frequently appears in these stories, and the one that made Hammett so popular with his readers, is a man without a name. He’s known as the Continental Op—an operative working for the Continental Detective Agency. The Op reports to The Old Man—surely the original of James Bond’s M, George Smiley’s Control, and Charlie of Charlie’s Angels. This hero makes a point of avoiding heroics, as his aim is not to get himself killed but to catch the criminals. He’s short and fat and down-to-earth, playing a grouchy Sancho Panza to the thin, idealistic tilter at windmills who was lurking inside Hammett and would make such a decisive appearance in the courtroom in his later life.
Fatness and thinness are distinguishing markers in the stories and novels, but they’re also recurring motifs in the letters. Time and again Hammett tells his correspondents that he’s eating again, that he’s gaining weight, or—when illness or drink have got the better of him—that he hasn’t been able to eat at all. In the light of this constant struggle with his thinness—at bottom a struggle to remain alive—the title of Hammett’s last novel, The Thin Man, may have been a wry joke, the subject of which was Hammett himself. The thin man in the book is a mad genius who’s dead before the book begins. He appears to be alive only because other people say he is; in reality, he’s so thin he isn’t there at all. “Count me out,” Hammett may have been saying. “I’ve run out of energy, I’m gone.” And he was gone, from the writing scene at least.
Which brings us to the two silences: the literary silence, and the dramatic public one in federal court. Of the literary one—the absence of any new books after the mid-Thirties—Jo Hammett makes short work. “He didn’t stop writing. Not until the very last. What he stopped was finishing.” And indeed the letters are sprinkled with references to books he was beginning or continuing, and to possibilities for having the free time and the space in which to write.11 This part of the story makes painful reading for anyone who’s trying to write books, since the moves—the setting out with optimism, the evasion, the fading away of purpose—are so familiar.
None of the attempts came to anything. Drink has been suggested as the reason, and illness, and other activities that interfered, though it was Hammett’s choice to let them. Then there were ambition and high standards: Hammett wanted to go “mainstream”—to get outside what he felt was the limiting circle of crime writing—and that was a big leap. Perhaps, however, his fundamental problem was with language. “I stopped writing because I was repeating myself,” he said in 1956. “It is the beginning of the end when you discover you have style.” And he did have style, or rather a style—a mannered implement he’d worked up and polished, but an implement very much of its time. Possibly he could no longer settle on a language equal to the occasion; or rather, the occasion itself had passed by. By the Forties and Fifties the scene had changed radically, and he must have felt out of his element. He couldn’t go to town on the language any more, because that kind of town no longer existed.
Then there’s the other silence, the one in court. The virtues of silence as a stratagem had occurred to Hammett early. “It doesn’t matter how shrewd a man is, or how good a liar,” the Op says in the 1924 story “ZigZags of Treachery”: “If he’ll talk to you and you play your cards right, you can hook him—can make him help you convict him. But if he won’t talk you can’t do a thing with him.”
Also, if Hammett kept silent, he wouldn’t implicate anyone else: only he would suffer. Strangely enough, there’s a literary precedent even for that. The young boy who’d wanted to read all the books in the Baltimore public library can hardly have escaped Longfellow, then the most revered of American poets. Longfellow’s poem “The Children’s Hour”12 was chosen by Hammett as the title of the play attributed to Lillian Hellman, though Hammett had provided the story for it and did much of the work. So Hammett more than likely knew Longfellow’s verse drama, Giles Corey of the Salem Farms.
Giles Corey was the man who refused to plead either guilty or not guilty during the Salem witchcraft episode. If he pled, he’d have been tried, and if tried, he’d have been found guilty—all those accused were. His property would then have been confiscated by the State, and his family deprived. He took his stand on principle, but also out of consideration for others, as Hammett himself did. The penalty for failure to plead was “pressing”—stones were piled on top of you until you either pled or died. Giles Corey did the latter.13 If Hammett considered the Salem trials as a paradigm for the McCarthy “witchhunt,” he was not alone. Many used that metaphor, including Arthur Miller in his play The Crucible.
In Longfellow’s play, the last words spoken about Corey before his death are, “I wonder now/If the old man will die, and will not speak? He’s obsti-nate enough and tough enough/For anything on earth.” Silence equals toughness. Could it be that this verbal equation was first planted in young Hammett’s head by the author of Evangeline?
Well, it’s one more clue.
February 14, 2002
Diane Johnson, Dashiell Hammett: A Life (Random House, 1983). ↩
The term “pulp” didn’t refer to the sleaziness of the writing, but to the quality of the paper: the “pulps” were printed on uncoated paper, as opposed to the more upmarket “slicks.” But many good writers got their start in the pulps, and they were a source of income if you could write quickly. ↩
As he was already a star by then, he evidently didn’t have to suffer the mind-bending and humiliation dished out to lesser CPUSA members, such as Richard Wright. ↩
The third Samuel in the trio is Sam Spade. Hammett was very conscious of names, and would have given his own to this character quite deliberately. ↩
As Jo Hammett remarks, “Papa loved all kinds of word play: thieves’ cant, convict argot, Yiddish expressions, restaurant and cowboy talk, Cockney rhyming slang, gangster-lowlife speak.” ↩
In 1931 he was reading Sanctuary, which—with its twisted Popeye and its socialite who plays with the toughs—is probably Faulkner’s most Hammett-like book. Hammett didn’t think highly of it, but revised his opinion of Faulkner upward in later years. ↩
Hiassen’s amazing “Velcro-Face” of Skin Tight and his road-kill-eating ex-senator exist on a continuum that leads from Hammett’s squinty or big-chinned grotesques through Faulkner’s twisted Popeye through Dick Tracy of the comics, with its gargoyle thugs such as “Anyface,” who looked like Swiss cheese. ↩
This strain—awfulness behind the apple-pie façade—runs through Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” in which the wholesome townsfolk are in league with the Devil, through Hammett, through Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, where the town conceals murderous Martians, through the film The Stepford Wives, in which robot wife doubles have replaced real wives, to the television show Twin Peaks and certain episodes of The X Files. In real life it has played itself out in versions of Satanic cults, as well as its ur-form, the infamous Salem witchcraft trials. ↩
Hammett was a moviegoer. It’s endearing to find him giving his opinion of the relative merits of Pinocchio versus Snow White. Needless to say, he liked Pinocchio better. ↩
Jo Hammett describes all the kinds of toughness Hammett admired: tough men, tough women, tough sports. It was a quality of character as well as a physical quality. “Toughness,” she says, “would take him through the last bad years.” ↩
There were three main attempts: My Brother Felix, which was “going to be pretty good for both magazines and movies”; The Valley Sheep Are Fatter, a title that comes from one of Thomas Love Peacock’s novels; and Tulip, this last about a writer who can no longer write. ↩
Thought of as a piece of syrupy kitsch by those who haven’t read it closely. But Hammett was a good reader, and must have seen it for the creepy poem it is. ↩
The only words Corey is said to have uttered were “Put on more stones,” but Longfellow has the pressing take place offstage and so does not use them. ↩