Born in St. Mary's County, Maryland in 1894, Dashiell Hammett published hard-boiled short stories and novelettes before writing his first novel, Red Harvest (1929), which TIME magazine called one of the top 100 novels written from 1923 to 2005. The Maltese Falcon introduced the character Sam Spade, Hammett's fictional detective, and both the book and its film became classics of the genre. Hammett also wrote The Glass Key (1931) and The Thin Man (1934), and his life's work has led many readers to call him the world's finest detective-fiction writer.
Dashiell Hammett was born in St. Mary's County, Maryland, on May 27, 1894, and went on to drop out of school around age 13. Growing up in Baltimore and Philadelphia, he worked a string of odd jobs to help support his family before joining the renowned Pinkerton Detective Agency in 1915, when he was 20. Hammett continued his detective work when he moved to San Francisco, California, before enlisting in the U.S. Army during World War I.
When Hammett returned from his tour of duty, the tuberculosis he had contracted in the Army had caused his health to be affected to the point that returning to his detective work was impossible. Hammett's ill health would remain with him for the rest of his life, but two good subplots would come out of it: He married a nurse he met through his tuberculosis treatment and later had two daughters with her, changing the course of his life and, in turn, the entire face of crime fiction.
The Writing Life
Dashiell Hammett was forced to quit the Pinkertons, and what he did next is the stuff of literary legend, so true to life that it seems fabricated. He turned his experience with the Pinkerton Agency into short detective stories, with his first being published in 1922 by the society magazine The Smart Set. His take on the detective story was new, though, and its gritty realism forced his writing to migrate to the pulp/crime publications of the time, including Black Mask, which published his story "Arson Plus" in 1923 (under the pseudonym Peter Collinson).
The stories (more than 80 in total over his life) featured detectives such as Sam Spade and the Continental Op, two characters that would go down as classics of the Hammett-created "hard-boiled" genre. His heroes are no-nonsense, hard-drinking men who move through life unencumbered by anything but their personal sense of morality and code of honor. Sam Spade was Hammett's central character after 1929, becoming the symbol of the American private eye, with special thanks to Humphrey Bogart and his portrayal of Spade in the 1941 filmed version of The Maltese Falcon (1941).
The Maltese Falcon was Hammett's second novel (and was hugely popular, going into seven printings its first year), and he only wrote four others: Red Harvest (1929), The Dain Curse (1929), The Glass Key (1931) and The Thin Man (1934; featuring the married, boozy sleuths Nick and Nora Charles).
By around 1930, Hammett's marriage had deteriorated, and he thusly moved to Hollywood to look for work writing for the movies, which never quite worked out. While there, he met Lillian Hellman, a married, 24-year-old aspiring playwright. The two became inseparable, and, though they never married, they remained close for the rest of his life, despite his habits of heavy drinking and womanizing.
After he wrote The Thin Man, Hammett never wrote another novel and dedicated himself to left-wing political causes, including civil rights. When Pearl Harbor was bombed during World War II, Hammett once again enlisted in the Army, after which he moved to New York, where his fortunes would take a turn for the worse.
Trouble with the law involving Hammett's communist associates led him to serve a six-month jail sentence, after which the IRS came after him for $100,000 in back taxes and garnished his future earnings.
In 1953, Hammett found himself testifying before Joseph McCarthy's Senate hearings that sought to root out Communists in the American entertainment industry, bringing added, unwanted media attention to the writer. He soon moved to a cottage in Katonah, New York, where he lived an isolated life.
After suffering a heart attack in 1955, Hammett died of lung cancer in New York City on January 10, 1961, at the age of 67.
Despite only having published five novels, Hammett remains one of the most influential writers of his time. He created an entire subgenre of fiction as well as some of the most compelling leading men in literature, and his "hard-boiled" world has had a lasting effect on television, film and a wide array of writers.
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