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Samuel Dashiell Hammett (1894 – 1961) was an American author of hard-boiled detective novels and short stories, a screenplay writer, and political activist. Among the enduring characters he created are Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon), Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man), and the Continental Op (Red Harvest and The Dain Curse).
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 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. Hammett and Dolan had two daughters, Mary Jane (1921) and Josephine (1926). Shortly after the birth of their second child, Health Services 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.
Hammett became an alcoholic before working in advertising and, eventually, writing. 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, more than twenty-five years before his death. It is not certain why he moved away from fiction; Hellman speculated in a posthumous collection of Hammett’s novels that “I think, but I only think, I know a few of the reasons: he wanted to do new kind of work, he was sick for many of those years and getting sicker.”
Hammett devoted much of the rest of his life to left-wing activism. 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.
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.
After the war, Hammett returned to political activism, “but he played that role with less fervor than before.” He was elected President of the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) on June 5, 1946 at a meeting held at the Hotel Diplomat in New York City, and “devoted the largest portion of his working time to CRC activities.” In 1946, a bail fund was created by the CRC “to be used at the discretion of three trustees to gain the release of defendants arrested for political reasons.” Those three trustees were Hammett, who was chairman, Robert W. Dunn, and Frederick Vanderbilt Field, “millionaire Communist supporter.” On April 3, 1947, the CRC was identified as a Communist front group on the Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations, as directed by U.S. President Harry S. Truman’s Executive Order 9835.
The CRC’s bail fund gained national attention in 1949, when bail in the amount of $260,000 was posted to free eleven men appealing their convictions for criminal conspiracy and advocating the overthrow of the United States government by force and violence. In July 1951, their appeals exhausted, four of the convicted men fled rather than surrender themselves to Federal agents. The US Southern District Court of New York issued subpoenas to the trustees of the CRC in an attempt to find the fugitives. Hammett testified on July 9, 1951 in front of US District Court Judge Sylvester Ryan, facing questions by Irving Saypol, the US Attorney, described by Time as “the nation’s number one legal hunter of top Communists”. Hammett took the Fifth and as soon as his testimony concluded, he was found guilty of contempt of court. He served time in a West Virginia federal penitentiary. According to Lillian Hellman, “he had come to the conclusion that a man should keep his word.” In 1953 he again testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, but refused to cooperate with the committee. No action was taken, but this stand led to his being blacklisted, as a result of McCarthyism.
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.”
Hammett became “a hermit”, his decline evident in the clutter of his rented “ugly little country cottage” where “the signs of sickness were all around: now the phonograph was unplayed, the typewriter untouched, the beloved foolish gadgets unopened in their packages.” Hammett could no longer 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.” 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.
He wrote only five full length novels, some 53 novelettes and short stories and was involved in several screenplays.
Sam Spade is a fictional private detective and the protagonist of Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel, The Maltese Falcon. Spade also appeared in three lesser-known short stories by Hammett.
The Maltese Falcon, first published as a serial in the pulp magazine Black Mask, is the only full-length novel in which Spade appears. The character, however, is widely cited as a crystallizing figure in the development of hard-boiled private detective fiction – Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, for instance, was strongly influenced by Spade.
Spade was a departure from Hammett’s nameless and less-than-glamorous detective, The Continental Op. Spade combined several features of previous detectives, most notably his detached demeanor, keen eye for detail, and unflinching determination to achieve his own justice.
Sam Spade Novels
The Maltese Falcon (1930)
Note: A gem of detective fiction!
A treasure worth killing for. Sam Spade, a slightly shopworn private eye with his own solitary code of ethics. A perfumed grafter named Joel Cairo, a fat man name Gutman, and Brigid O’Shaughnessy, a beautiful and treacherous woman whose loyalties shift at the drop of a dime. These are the ingredients of Dashiell Hammett’s coolly glittering gem of detective fiction, a novel that has haunted three generations of readers.
Sam Spade Short Stories
A Man Called Spade (1932)
Collection: Sam Spade
Available in paperback and ebook editions.
First published in July, 1932, in The American Magazine; also collected in A Man Called Spade and Other Stories.
“A Man Called Spade” is by far the longest of the three short stories. Spade arrives at a prospective client’s apartment to find Tom Polhous and Lieutenant Dundy, from Maltese Falcon, on the crime scene and his prospective client murdered, with a five-pointed star with the letter ‘T’ in the middle outlined in black ink above his heart.
“SAMUEL SPADE put his telephone aside and looked at his watch. It was not quite four o’clock. He called, “Yoo-hoo!”
Effie Perine came in from the outer office. She was eating a piece of chocolate cake.
“Tell Sid Wise I won’t be able to keep that date this afternoon,” he said.
She put the last of the cake into her mouth and licked the tips of forefinger and thumb. “That’s the third time this week.”
When he smiled, the v’s of his chin, mouth, and brows grew longer. “I know, but I’ve got to go out and save a life.” He nodded at the telephone. “Somebody’s scaring Max Bliss.”
She laughed. “Probably somebody named John D. Conscience.”
Too Many Have Lived (1932)
Collection: Sam Spade
Available in paperback and ebook editions.
Note: Missing and hopefully dead?
First published in October, 1932, The American Magazine; also collected in A Man Called Spade and Other Stories
“Too Many Have Lived” opens as Gene Colyer hires Spade to find out what happened to the missing Eli Haven. Colder has feelings for Haven’s wife and would be quite happy if the man disappeared forever.
“The man’s tie was as orange as a sunset. He was a large man, tall and meaty, without softness. The dark hair parted in the middle, flattened to his scalp, his firm, full cheeks, the clothes that fit him with noticeable snugness, even the small, pink ears flat against the sides of his head – each of these seemed but a differently colored part of one same, smooth surface. His age could have been thirty-five or forty-five.”
They Can Only Hang You Once (1932)
Collection: Sam Spade
Available in paperback and ebook editions.
Note: A dead wait?
First published November 19, 1932, in Colliers magazine; also in A Man Called Spade and Other Stories
In “They Can Only Hang You Once” Spade is undercover, waiting to see an elderly man in a large house, when a woman screams and a gunshot follows. He rushes in to find a dead woman and two bystanders.
“The butler – his name’s Jarbo – was in here when he heard the scream and shot, so he says. Irene Kelly, the maid, was down on the ground floor, so she says. The cook, Margaret Finn, was in her room – third floor back – and didn’t even hear anything, so she says. She’s deaf as a post, so everybody else says. The back door and gate were unlocked, but are supposed to be kept locked, so everybody says. Nobody says they were in or around the kitchen or yard at the time.” Spade spread his hands in a gesture of finality. “That’s the crop.”
Sam Spade DVD Collections
The Maltese Falcon
Available in DVD
Note: Starring Humphrey Bogart & Mary Astor
The Maltese Falcon is a 1941 film noir directed by John Huston in his directorial debut. Huston’s screenplay was based on the novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett. The film stars Humphrey Bogart as private investigator Sam Spade and Mary Astor as his femme fatale client. Gladys George, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet co-star, with Greenstreet appearing in his film debut. The story follows a San Francisco private detective and his dealings with three unscrupulous adventurers, all of whom are competing to obtain a jewel-encrusted falcon statuette.