Samuel Dashiell Hammett has been credited with inventing the hard-boiled detective story. He has also been noted for his refusal to “name names” before a federal judge in 1951, during the height of McCarthyism. Born in Maryland, Hammett in 1900 moved with his family to Philadelphia and then one year later to Baltimore. It was there that Hammett was reared and received what formal education he was able to obtain. In 1908, he withdrew from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute to help his father in a small business venture. Hammett soon left his father’s full-time employ, however, and from 1909 to 1915 he worked at a variety of jobs for firms such as the B & O Railroad and the Davies Brokerage House.
In 1915, Hammett’s life took a crucial turn when he became an operative for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Hammett learned the tools of his trade well and enjoyed the work until June, 1918, when he enlisted in the U.S. Army and became a private in the Motor Ambulance Corps. After his stint with the Army, Hammett moved to Spokane, Washington, where he continued to work sporadically as a Pinkerton agent while struggling against a bronchial disorder. He was finally hospitalized for pulmonary tuberculosis. At Cushman Hospital in Tacoma, Hammett met Josephine Dolan, a nurse. The two married in July of 1921 and settled in San Francisco. Their daughter Mary was born in October of that year.
Having given up detective work, Hammett began to publish short pieces in 1922, and he quickly found his niche as an author of hard-boiled detective stories for such pulp magazines as Black Mask. These stories, like those of many other writers, were fast-paced and featured plenty of action, but what distinguished Hammett’s work was its realism, drawn in part from his experience as a detective. Although money was scarce at first, leading Hammett briefly to write advertisements for a San Francisco jeweler, the demand for his stories remained, and by 1927 Hammett’s first novel, Red Harvest, began appearing in installments. With that, his commercial success as a writer was ensured.
Hammett’s health and marriage had not flourished during this time. When a second daughter, Josephine, was born to the Hammetts in 1926, Hammett was told by doctors that his tuberculosis placed the infant’s health at risk. He moved out of the house and, in 1929, as his writing career was peaking, moved to New York and left his family permanently. That year also saw the publication in book form of Hammett’s first two novels (his second was The Dain Curse). These were followed by the novels The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, and The Thin Man, which, together with his short detective fiction, established Hammett as one of the most distinctive (though also one of the most imitated) American authors of the twentieth century. In 1934, he was hired as a screenwriter for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. His time in Hollywood, however, involved more drinking and other forms of conspicuous consumption than writing. He never completed another novel of note.
Hammett’s reputation grew, nevertheless, because of the numerous film versions of his novels. The Maltese Falcon, directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart as detective Sam Spade, was released in 1941. This film, like the novel on which it was based, illustrates some of the appeal and lasting value of Hammett’s work. With the exception of one or two scenes, the screenplay was taken directly from the novel, for Hammett’s lean prose and strong dialogue lent itself easily to the screen. In addition to the brisk narrative flow and the resultant suspense, there is a profound sense of mystery conveyed through depth of characterization and symbolism. Similar elements are present in Hammett’s other work. The form of writing reflects its origin in the pulp magazines at the same time that it transcends that level.
Although Hammett’s career as an innovative author ended prematurely, the remainder of his life is notable for his friendship with playwright Lillian Hellman and for his politics. In the 1930’s, Hammett became Hellman’s lover and friend, with the friendship far outlasting the love affair. Hammett has been credited with helping Hellman develop as a writer, and she remained his closest friend until his death. Like other aspects of his personality, Hammett’s politics were complex. During the late 1930’s, Hammett became interested in left-wing political causes, and he contributed to the Loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War and later became a copublisher of Equality magazine. In 1940, he was named national chairman of a group founded to promote the political candidacy of Communist Party members. This kind of activity was not uncommon as a response to the deprivations of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism in Europe. Hammett ultimately was called to testify before a federal court in 1951. As trustee of the New York Civil Rights Congress bail fund, he was asked for a list of the fund’s contributors. Living up to the standards set by his hard-boiled heroes, Hammett refused to divulge the list or deny that he had access to it. He was cited for contempt and served six months in prison.
After his release, Hammett’s health took a turn for the worse–as did his financial situation. With the help of friends and, later, a small pension from the Veterans Administration, Hammett nevertheless managed to live his last decade with dignity and in a fair amount of comfort. When he died in 1961, his reputation had not fully recovered, but his rather austere funeral was attended by many celebrities. In her eulogy, Hellman called Hammett “a man of simple honor and great bravery.” He was buried on January 13, 1961, in Arlington National Cemetery.