In addition to the significant influence his novels and stories had on film, Hammett "is now widely regarded as one of the finest mystery writers of all time" and was called, in his obituary in The New York Times, "the dean of the... 'hard-boiled' school of detective fiction."Time magazine included Hammett's 1929 novel Red Harvest on a list of the 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005.
Hammett was born on a farm called Hopewell and Aim in St. Mary's County, in southern Maryland. His parents were Richard Thomas Hammett and Anne Bond Dashiell. His mother belonged to an old Maryland family whose name was Anglicized from the French De Chiel. Hammett was baptized a Catholic and grew up in Philadelphia and Baltimore. "Sam", as he was known before he began writing, left school when he was 13 years old and held several jobs before working for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. He served as an operative for the Pinkertons from 1915 to February 1922, with time off to serve in World War I. However, the agency's role in union strike-breaking eventually disillusioned him.
Hammett enlisted in the Army in 1918 and served in the Motor Ambulance Corps. However, he became ill with the Spanish flu and later contracted tuberculosis. He spent most of his time in the Army as a patient in Cushman Hospital, Tacoma, Washington. While there he met a nurse, Josephine Dolan, whom he later married.
Marriage and family
Hammett and Dolan had two daughters, Mary Jane (born 15 October 1921) and Josephine (born in 1926). Shortly after the birth of their second child, Health Services nurses informed Dolan that due to Hammett's TB, she and the children should not live with him full-time. Dolan rented a home in San Francisco, where Hammett would visit on weekends. The marriage soon fell apart, but he continued to financially support his wife and daughters with the income he made from his writing.
Career and personal life
Hammett became an alcoholic before working in advertising and, eventually, writing. His previous work at the detective agency provided him the inspiration for his writings. Hammett wrote most of his detective fiction during the period that he was living in San Francisco (the 1920s), and specific streets and locations in San Francisco are frequently mentioned in his stories. He was first published in 1922 in the magazine The Smart Set. Known for his authenticity and realism in his writing, Hammett drew on his experiences as a Pinkerton operative. As Hammett said: "All my characters were based on people I've known personally, or known about."Raymond Chandler, often considered Hammett's successor, summarized his accomplishments:
Hammett was the ace performer... He is said to have lacked heart; yet the story he himself thought the most of The Glass Key is the record of a man's devotion to a friend. He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before. - Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder
From 1929 to 1930 Dashiell was romantically involved with Nell Martin, an author of short stories and several novels. He dedicated The Glass Key to her, and in turn, she dedicated her novel Lovers Should Marry to Hammett. In 1931, Hammett embarked on a 30-year affair with playwright Lillian Hellman. He wrote his final novel in 1934, and devoted much of the rest of his life to left-wingactivism. He was a strong anti-fascist throughout the 1930s and in 1937 he joined the Communist Party USA. He suspended his anti-fascist activities when, as a member (and in 1941 president) of the League of American Writers, he served on its Keep America Out of War Committee in January 1940 during the period of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. The League again abruptly shifted its political position, resuming its anti-fascist stance, with the German invasion of the USSR in the summer of 1941.
Service in World War II and post-war politics
In early 1942, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hammett again enlisted in the United States Army. He was a disabled veteran of World War I, a victim of tuberculosis, and a Communist, but he pulled strings in order to be admitted. He served as a sergeant in the Aleutian Islands, where he edited an Army newspaper. In 1943, while a member of the military, he had co-authored The Battle of the Aleutians with Cpl. Robert Colodny, under the direction of an Infantry intelligence officer, Major Henry W. Hall. While located in the Aleutians he fell victim to emphysema.
The CRC's bail fund gained national attention on November 4, 1949, when bail in the amount of "$260,000 in negotiable government bonds" was posted "to free eleven men appealing their convictions under the Smith Act for criminal conspiracy to teach and advocate the overthrow of the United States government by force and violence." On July 2, 1951, their appeals exhausted, four of the convicted men fled rather than surrender themselves to Federal agents and begin serving their sentences. The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York issued subpoenas to the trustees of the CRC bail fund in an attempt to learn the whereabouts of the fugitives. Hammett testified on July 9, 1951 in front of United States District Court Judge Sylvester Ryan, facing questioning by Irving Saypol, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, described by Time as "the nation's number one legal hunter of top Communists". During the hearing Hammett refused to provide the information the government wanted, specifically, the list of contributors to the bail fund, "people who might be sympathetic enough to harbor the fugitives." Instead, on every question regarding the CRC or the bail fund, Hammett took the Fifth Amendment, refusing to even identify his signature or initials on CRC documents the government had subpoenaed. As soon as his testimony concluded, Hammett was found guilty of contempt of court. Hammett served time in a West Virginia federal penitentiary where, according to Lillian Hellman, he was assigned to cleaning toilets.
During the 1950s he was investigated by Congress. He testified on March 26, 1953 before the House Un-American Activities Committee about his own activities, but refused to cooperate with the committee. No official action was taken, but his stand was widely unpopular and he was boycotted, or blacklisted.
A lifetime of heavy drinking and smoking worsened Hammett's tuberculosis contracted in World War I, and then according to Hellman "jail had made a thin man thinner, a sick man sicker ... I knew he would now always be sick." He may have meant to start a new literary life with the novel Tulip, but left it unfinished perhaps because he was "just too ill to care, too worn out to listen to plans or read contracts. The fact of breathing, just breathing, took up all the days and nights."
As the years of the 1950s wore on, Hellman says Hammett became "a hermit", his decline evident in the clutter of his rented "ugly little country cottage" where "[t]he signs of sickness were all around: now the phonograph was unplayed, the typewriter untouched, the beloved foolish gadgets unopened in their packages." Hammett no longer could live alone and they both knew it, so the last four years of his life he spent with Hellman. "Not all of that time was easy, and some of it very bad", she wrote but, "guessing death was not too far away, I would try for something to have afterwards." On January 10, 1961, Hammett died in New York City's Lenox Hill Hospital, of lung cancer, diagnosed just two months before. As a veteran of two World Wars, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
All the novels except The Thin Man were originally serialized in three, four, or five parts in various magazines.
$106,000 Blood Money (Bestseller Mystery, 1943) A paperbackdigest that collects two connected Op stories, The Big Knockover and $106,000 Blood Money.
Blood Money (Tower, 1943) The hardcover edition of the Bestseller Mystery title.
The Adventures of Sam Spade (Bestseller Mystery, 1944). Paperback digest that collects the three Spade stories and four others. This and the following eight digest collections were compiled and edited by Fred Dannay (one-half of Ellery Queen) with Hammett's permission. All of these were reprinted as dell map-back paperbacks.
The Continental Op (Bestseller Mystery, 1945) Paperback digest that collects four Op stories.
The Adventures of Sam Spade (Tower, 1945). The hardcover edition of the digest of the same title—this was the last time the digests were reprinted in hardcover.
The Return of the Continental Op (The Jonathan Press, 1945). Paperback digest that collects five further Op stories.
Hammett Homicides (Bestseller Mysteries, 1946). Paperback digest that collects six stories, including four that feature the Op.
Dead Yellow Women (The Jonathan Press, 1947). Paperback digest that collects six stories, including four that feature the Op.
Nightmare Town (American Mercury, 1948). Paperback digest that collects four stories, two of which feature the Op.
The Creeping Siamese (American Mercury, 1950). Paperback digest that collects six stories, three of which feature the Op.
Woman in the Dark (The Jonathan Press, 1951). Paperback digest that collects six stories, including three that feature the Op, and the three-part novelette Woman in the Dark.
A Man Named Thin (Mercury Mystery, 1962). The last paperback digest, collects eight stories, including one Op story.
The Big Knockover (Random House, 1966; an important collection, edited by Lillian Hellman, that helped revive Hammett's literary reputation; includes the unfinished novel Tulip).
The Continental Op (Random House, 1974; edited by Steven Marcus).
Woman in the Dark (Knopf, 1988; hardcover edition that collects the three parts of the title novelette; introduction by Robert B. Parker).
Nightmare Town (Knopf, 1999; hardcover collection, contents different from the digest title of the same name).
Lost Stories (Vince Emery Productions, 2005; collects 21 stories that have not been collected previously in hardcover or, in several cases, ever. Emery provides several long commentaries on Hammett's career that provide context for the stories; introduction by Joe Gores).
The Diamond Wager (Detective Fiction Weekly, October 19, 1929).
On the Way (Harper's Bazaar, March 1932).
"After the Thin Man", 1936
"Shadow of the Thin Man", 1941
"The Glass Key", 1942
"Watch on the Rhine", 1943
Creeps by Night; Chills and Thrills (John Day, 1931; Anthology edited by Hammett)
Secret Agent X-9 Book 1 (David McKay, 1934; collection of the comic strip written by Hammett and illustrated by Alex Raymond)
Secret Agent X-9 Book 2 (David McKay, 1934; a second collection of the comic strip).
The Battle of the Aleutians (Field Force Headquarters, Adak, Alaska, 1944; text written by Hammett, with illustrations by Robert Colodny).
Watch on the Rhine (screenplay of Hellman's play, in Best Film Plays 1943-44, Crown, 1945; also includes the screenplay for Casablanca).
Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett : 1921-1960 (Counterpoint Press, 2001; edited by Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett)
Return of the Thin Man (Mysterious Press 2012; Hammett's screen treatments for After the Thin Man and Another Thin Man, edited by Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett)
In 2011, magazine editor Andrew Gulli found fifteen previously unknown short stories by Dashiell Hammett in the archives of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin.
Hammett's relationship with Lillian Hellman was portrayed in the film Julia. Jason Robards won an Oscar for his depiction of Hammett, and Jane Fonda was nominated for hers of Lillian Hellman.
Hammett was portrayed semi-fictionally as the protagonist in the film Hammett.
^Hellman, Lilian, Introduction to Hammett, Dashiell, The Big Knockover: Selected Stories and Short Novels (Houghton Mifflin: 1962) (published posthumously--Hammett had turned down offers to republish his stories and Hellman did so only after his death, as a tribute.), pp. vii-viii
^Hellman's Introduction to The Big Knockover pp. xi-xii Hellman says there began an "irritating farce" that Dashiell told her he was cleaning bathrooms "better than [she] had ever done" and "learned to take pride in the work" which she called his form of boasting, or humor, "to make fun of trouble or pain."
^Hellman's Introduction to The Big Knockover pp. xi & xii
^Hellman's Introduction to The Big Knockover p. viii (Hellman speculates Hammett turned down republishing offers because he might have hoped for a fresh start and "didn't want the old work to get in the way.")
^Hellman's Introduction to The Big Knockover p. xx
^Hellman's Introduction to The Big Knockover p. xxvi