Detective fiction took a great leap forward into the modern age when Samuel Dashiell Hammett was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1894. Prior to his writing career, the detective was limited to solving crimes in the parlour room, the manor house, or on the English moors. Wilkie Collins, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Agatha Christie kept their murders strictly high-class and bloodless. Hammett drew on his personal experiences to bring murder back down to the gutter. His anti-heroes, the Continental Op and Sam Spade, paved the way for modern crime fiction.
The Creation of a Detective
Dashiell Hammett left school early, and spent his adolescence and young adulthood in a variety of odd jobs. His life truly began when he joined the Pinkerton Detective Agency in 1915. The Pinkertons were notorious in America for solving crimes, catching bank robbers, breaking labour strikes, and providing security for wealthy industrialists. The agency was founded during the American Civil War by a Scottish immigrant, Allan Pinkerton. They were involved in the pursuit of Confederate sympathizers, Jesse James, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Industrial Workers of the World union radicals. The public outcry after the disastrous Homestead labour strike in Pennsylvania in 1892, in which Pinkerton operatives opened fire on union strikers and their families, forced the agency to have a lower profile on the national scene. However, they were still instrumental in early criminal detection. They were among the first agencies to use fingerprint evidence, undercover disguises, and other modern investigative techniques.
Hammett worked for the Pinkertons across the United States, eventually landing in the San Francisco branch office. He was involved in a variety of cases, from 'simple' bank robbery to the torture and murder of IWW labour activist Frank Little in 1917. When the United States entered World War I he joined the army. While serving in the military he contracted tuberculosis and was sent to a hospital in Washington State to recover. There he met and married one of his nurses, Josephine Dolan. After she became pregnant he left her to rejoin the Pinkertons in San Francisco. His declining health forced his early retirement in the early 1920s. His wife eventually followed him. To support his small family he began to write. He used his Pinkerton experiences to write fiction unlike anything else being published.
The Detective as Author
Hammett began by selling short stories to pulp fiction magazines such as Black Mask. For someone with very little education, his writing style was spare and elegant. Instead of relying on sophisticated vocabulary and convoluted plots, he used action to propel the story. Hammett could use just a few choice words to evoke an entire mood or setting. His tales were dark and violent. People stole, beat, and killed each other for amoral reasons, just as in real life. There were no fabulous tales of criminal masterminds, dapper Belgian detectives, or Indian diamonds. Instead the reader entered the world of pimps, whores, corrupt politicians, and common criminals. His tales became popular with the readers of the pulps and soon he began to release some of his serial stories in book form. Many of these novellas featured the Continental Op (short for operative), an employee of the Continental Detective Agency. He modelled the Op and the agency on his experiences with the Pinkertons. The Op primarily worked cases in San Francisco, but in such works as Red Harvest travelled as far inland as Butte, Montana. Most of Hammett's plots are based in San Francisco, a city he knew well and loved. His most famous creation, Detective Sam Spade, solved the mystery behind that notorious black bird The Maltese Falcon in the city beside the Bay. Some of his other critically acclaimed works are The Dain Curse and a scathing exposé of corruption in politics, The Glass Key.
The Slow Death of an Artist
By the time his last work, The Thin Man, featuring the sophisticated husband-and-wife detective team Nick and Nora Charles, was released in 1932, Dashiell Hammett's life had drastically changed. 1930 found him living in Hollywood and writing screenplays for the movies. In return, Hollywood put many of his most famous characters on the silver screen. William Powell and Myrna Loy brought Nick and Nora to life in The Thin Man. Sam Spade was brilliantly portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in the classic movie The Maltese Falcon. Hammett, however, had become an alcoholic and begun a lifelong affair with playwright Lillian Hellman. Although he never published another book, he is believed to have helped Hellman write many of her critically acclaimed works, plays such as The Children's Hour and The Little Foxes. During World War II he served his country again in the Aleutian Islands. After the war, his vocal support of the Communist Party led to his investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Refusing to divulge party members' names he was blacklisted and sent to prison. His poor health caught up with him again, and his last years were spent under the care of Hellman at her farm in upstate New York. Incarceration and the long absence from publishing circles led to near obscurity at the time of his death in 1961. Thanks to the enduring popularity of crime fiction and classic film, Hammett's legendary characters live on.