Dashiell Hammett was born in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, on May 27th, 1894. He became a detective in 1915 when he joined the Baltimore branch of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, housed in the Continental Building. Hammett learned the detective trade from James Wright, a short, squat, tough-talking operative, whom Hammett came to idolize. Hammett left the Pinkertons in 1918 to enlist in the Army, but tuberculosis contracted while in service prompted his medical discharge less than a year later. He eventually settled in San Francisco, and by 1922 he was a professional writer, publishing his first hard-boiled short story, “Arson Plus,” in the October 1923 issue of the pulp magazine Black Mask. This story featured his ground breaking character, the Continental Op — the nameless operative of the Continental Detective Agency. Hammett’s Continental Op novels Red Harvest and The Dain Curse were published in 1929; The Maltese Falcon (featuring Sam Spade, 1930), The Glass Key (featuring the gangster Ned Beaumont, 1931), and The Thin Man (with Nick and Nora Charles, 1934) were all best sellers; the final three became successful films. He wrote a handful of screenplays in Hollywood, was active in leftist politics in the 1940’s and 1950’s, and died on January 10, 1961.
Raymond Chandler described Hammet’s writing style in The Simple Art of Murder:
Hammett wrote… for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life. They were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there. Violence did not dismay them; it was right down their street. Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse … He put these people down on paper as they were, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes.
The Maltese Falcon (1930)
Hammett’s reputation is largely built on his novel The Maltese Falcon, where many of the character types and situations which eventually became cliché were first introduced. San Francisco private detective Sam Spade is the protagonist that defines the type: an unsentimental, cynical, almost amoral “tarnished knight” with a private sense of justice and duty. The colorful supporting characters–the femme fatale, the antagonistic cops, the devoted secretary, the master criminal–and the complicated plot of double-crosses and shocking revelations created a sensation in the detective genre.
The novel was first published serially in Black Mask, and then quickly reprinted in book form. The novel went through eight reprintings in 1930 alone. It has remained in print in various hardback and paperback editions and continues to be easily available today. Certainly much of The Maltese Falcon‘s popularity is owed to John Huston’s fine 1941 film adaptation which starred Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sidney Greenstreet. This was actually the third filming of the novel, and it remains the definitive version. Huston adapted Hammett’s novel with minimal changes, often transferring unaltered pages of dialogue from book to film.
Sam Spade also appeared in a handful of short stories which were reprinted in book form in A Man Called Spade, edited by Ellery Queen.
The Glass Key (1931)
This novel followed hard upon the success of The Maltese Falcon. It was first serialized in Black Mask from March to June 1930, but did not see book publication in America until April 1931. The Glass Key follows Paul Madvig, a political boss in an unnamed city (modeled on Baltimore), and his trusted assistant Ned Beaumont, in a complicated story of friendship, political corruption, and murder. It brought Hammett continued critical and commercial success, and was filmed twice: first in 1935 when it starred George Raft as Ned Beaumont and Edward Arnold as Paul Madvig, and again in 1942, starring Alan Ladd, Brian Donleavy, and Veronica Lake. The basic plot resurfaced in the 1990 film Miller’s Crossing, starring Gabriel Byrne and Albert Finney.
The Continental Op
Although Hammett didn’t invent the “hard-boiled” genre, he was the most important and influential practitioner of the genre’s early years. His stories featuring a nameless detective–commonly known as the Continental Op–set the standard for all hard-boiled detective literature to follow. The Op is the epitome of the hard-boiled hero: tough, professional, equally at home with criminals and the police. He is short, fat, middle-aged, and more likely to solve problems with his automatic or fists rather than with puzzle-solving abilities. In a remarkable series of short stories first published in Black Mask in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and in the novels Red Harvest and The Dain Curse (both 1929), Hammett’s Continental Op became the model for all of the hard-boiled detectives that followed.
A number of paperback books from the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, reprinted many of the best Op stories. Hammett’s Op stories had been largely unavailable in the 1930’s and 40’s until “Ellery Queen” (the joint pseudonym of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee) edited this series of reprints for a new generation of readers. Unfortunately, many of these stories continue to be difficult to find outside of these reprints.
Although never filmed as written, the basic plot of Red Harvest has been recycled numerous times. Basically a western in modern clothes, it was easily adapted as a Japanese samurai film in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), readapted by Sergio Leone in the classic “spaghetti western” A Fistful of Dollars, and has nearly come full circle in last year’s film Last Man Standing, which starred Bruce Willis.
Some editions of the Hammett paperbacks included maps on the back covers indicating where criminal activity and key plot twists took place.
The Thin Man (1934)
Hammett’s last novel combined hard-boiled style with lighthearted comedy, and proved to be a resounding success: it sold 34,000 copies in the first eighteen months. Perhaps even more than The Maltese Falcon, however, The Thin Man owes it’s reputation to Hollywood rather than to Hammett. In the summer of 1934, the film version of The Thin Man was released, with William Powell and Myrna Loy as the characters Nick and Nora Charles. The film was a great success, and it spawned four sequels over the following years. All in all, this novel earned Hammett over a million dollars, but it killed his writing career: he never again wrote anything of consequence.
Hammett himself posed as the figure on the dust-jacket of the first edition, and became the model of the detective Nick Charles.