Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett
Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett
Born Samuel Dashiell Hammett
May 27, 1894(1894-05-27)
Saint Mary's County, Maryland,
United States
Died January 10, 1961(1961-01-10) (aged 66)
New York City,
United States
Occupation Novelist
Nationality American
Period 1929–1951
Genres Hardboiled crime fiction,
detective fiction

Samuel Dashiell Hammett (play /dəˈʃl/; May 27, 1894 – January 10, 1961) was an American author of hard-boiled detective novels and short stories, 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"[1] and was called, in his obituary in The New York Times, "the dean of the... 'hard-boiled' school of detective fiction".[2] Time magazine included Hammett's 1929 novel Red Harvest on a list of the 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005.[3]


Early life

Hammett was born on a farm called Hopewell and Aim in St. Mary's County, in southern Maryland.[4] 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 Roman Catholic[5] 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.[6]

Hammett enlisted in the United States 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 were married, and they had two daughters, Mary Jane (born 15 October 1921) and Josephine (born in 1926).[7] Shortly after the birth of their second child, Health Services nurses informed Josephine that due to Hammett's TB, she and the children should not live with him full time. Josephine rented a home in San Francisco, where Hammett would visit on weekends. The marriage soon fell apart, but he continued to support his wife and daughters financially with the income he made from his writing.[8]


Hammett turned to drinking, advertising, and, eventually, writing. His work at the detective agency provided him the inspiration for his writings.[9]

Known for his authenticity and realism, 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."[10]

Raymond Chandler, the writer 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

Later years

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. This relationship was portrayed in the film Julia, in which Hammett was portrayed by Jason Robards and Hellman by Jane Fonda, in Oscar winning and nominated performances respectively.

He wrote his final novel in 1934, and 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 American Communist Party.[11] As a member of the League of American Writers, he served on its Keep America Out of War Committee in January 1940 during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact.[12]

Service in World War II

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, and a victim of tuberculosis, but he pulled strings in order to be admitted. He served as a sergeant in the Aleutian Islands, where he edited an Army newspaper. He also fell victim to emphysema. As a corporal in 1943, 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.

Post-war political activity

After the war, Hammett returned to political activism, "but he played that role with less fervor than before."[13] 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."[13] 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."[14] Those three trustees were Hammett, who was chairman, Robert W. Dunn, and Frederick Vanderbilt Field, "millionaire Communist supporter."[14] On April 3, 1947, the CRC was designated 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.[15]

Imprisonment and the blacklist

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."[14] 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.[14] 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".[14] 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."[14] 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.[14][16][17][18] Hammett served time in a West Virginia federal penitentiary where, according to Lillian Hellman,[19] he was assigned to cleaning toilets.[20]

During the 1950s he was investigated by Congress as part of Senator Joseph McCarthy's attempt to identify Communist influence on American society and politics. He testified on March 26, 1953 before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations about his own activities, but refused to cooperate with the committee and was blacklisted.


Grave of Samuel Dashiell Hammett in Arlington National Cemetery

A lifetime's heavy consumption of alcohol and cigarettes worsened Hammett's tuberculosis contracted in World War I, and then according to Hellman (Lillian Hellman) "jail had made a thin man thinner, a sick man sicker . . . I knew he would now always be sick."[21] 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."[22]

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."[23] 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 says but, "guessing death was not too far away, I would try for something to have afterwards." [24] 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.[25]

Short fiction

  • "The Gatewood Caper", 1923
  • "Nightmare Town", 1924
  • "The Tenth Clew", 1924
  • "The House in Turk Street", 1924
  • "The Girl with the Silver Eyes", 1924
  • "Dead Yellow Women," 1925
  • "The Gutting of Couffignal", 1925
  • "The Scorched Face", 1925
  • "Corkscrew", 1925
  • "The Whosis Kid", 1925
  • "The Main Death," 1927
  • "The Big Knockover", 1927
  • "$106,000 Blood Money", 1927
  • "This King Business", 1928
  • "Fly Paper", 1929
  • "The Farewell Murder", 1930

Collected short fiction

  • $106,000 Blood Money (Bestseller Mystery, 1943) A paperback digest 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).

Uncollected stories

  • The Diamond Wager (Detective Fiction Weekly, October 19, 1929).
  • On the Way (Harper's Bazaar, March 1932).

Other publications

  • Creeps by Night; Chills and Thrills (John Day, 1931; Anthology edited by Hammett)[26]
  • 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).

Unpublished stories

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.[27]

Published as

Praise for Hammett's work

“Hammett was the ace performer . . . He did over and over again what only the best writers ever do at all.” –Raymond Chandler[28]

“Dashiell Hammett is as American as a sawed-off shotgun . . . It is true that he is so hard-boiled you could roll him on the White House lawn.” –Dorothy Parker, The New Yorker[29]

“The best novelist in the world since 1920.” –Jean-Patrick Manchette[30]

“Great crime fiction started with Hammett.” –James Ellroy[31]

“Hammett was breaking new ground in every book he wrote.” –George Pelecanos[31]

“If not the greatest, Dashiell Hammett is certainly the most important American mystery writer of the twentieth century.” –Tony Hillerman[31]

“The influence of his books has been profound and far-reaching . . . not just in crime fiction, but in mainstream fiction, on radio, television, and particularly in film.” –P.D. James[32]

“Hammett is one of the best contemporary writers.” –Gertrude Stein[33]

“The smartest, liveliest, and most literate detective story writer in America.” –Vanity Fair[33]

“It is impossible to overstate the importance of Dashiell Hammett to the American detective story (or, I believe, to American literature).” –Anthony Boucher, New York Times Book Review[33]

“The most important modern originator in the mystery field, giving us the first 100 per cent American, the first truly native, detective story, thus founding a school whose influence was, is, and will continue to be colossal, not only among mystery writers but among all writers.” –Ellery Queen[34]

“It is from Chandler and Hammett and Hemingway that the best modern fiction derives.” –Kenneth Rexroth[35]

“Hammett was the first American writer to use the detective story for the purposes of a major novelist, to present a vision, blazing if disenchanted, of our lives. . . . As a stylist he ranked among the best of his time, directly behind Hemingway and Fitzgerald. As a novelist of realistic intrigue with deep understated poetic and symbolic overtones, he was unsurpassed in his own or any time.” –Ross Macdonald[36]

“Chandler called him 'the master,' didn't he? And I can see what Chandler means.” –Colin Dexter[32]

“Hammett's fiction has affected almost all subsequent American writers' work, whether they know it or not. . . . To me, it is readily apparent that Hammett was one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century, period.” –Joe Gores[37]


  1. ^ Layman, Richard (1981). Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. pp. 239. ISBN 0-15-181459-7. 
  2. ^ Layman, Richard & Bruccoli, Matthew J. (2002). Hardboiled Mystery Writers: A Literary Reference. Carroll & Graf. pp. 225. ISBN 0-7867-1029-2. 
  3. ^ Lev Grossman; Richard Lacayo (2005-10-31). "TIME's Critics pick the 100 Best Novels 1923 to the Present". Time. http://www.time.com/time/2005/100books/. Retrieved 2008-10-19. 
  4. ^ Shoemaker, Sandy. Tobacco to Tomcats: St. Mary's County since the Revolution. StreamLine Enterprises, Leonardtown, Maryland. pp. 160. http://www.somd.lib.md.us/tobacco_to_tomcats/. Retrieved 2008-01-01. 
  5. ^ Gores, Joe in Emery, Vince, editor, Dashiell Hammett: Lost Stories. San Francisco: Vince Emery Productions, 2005, p. 197.
  6. ^ Thomas Heise, "'Going blood-simple like the natives': Contagious Urban Spaces and Modern Power in Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest", Modern Fiction Studies 51, no. 3 (Fall 2005) 506.
  7. ^ Layman, Richard with Rivett, Julie M. (2001). "Review" of Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett 1921-1960, Retrieved on 2009-06-02
  8. ^ Gores in Emery, editor, p. 240 and 336.
  9. ^ Gores in Emery, editor, pp. 18-24.
  10. ^ Chandler, Nightmare Town, p. iii, ISBN 0375701028, 9780375701023, searchable on Google Books in snippet form, Google Books ID xAEPAQAAMAAJ, URL http://books.google.com/books?ei=q3-gTu6_B5LMsQLnut3FBQ&ct=result&id=xAEPAQAAMAAJ.
  11. ^ FAQ at the CPUSA site
  12. ^ Franklin Folsom, Days of Anger, Days of Hope, University Press of Colorado, 1994, ISBN 0870813323
  13. ^ a b Layman, Richard (1981). Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. pp. 206. ISBN 0-15-181459-7. 
  14. ^ a b c d e f g Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett, pp. 219-223
  15. ^ Enid Nemy (February 7, 2000). "Frederick Vanderbilt Field, Wealthy Leftist, Dies at 94". The New York Times. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C04E0D9163EF934A35751C0A9669C8B63&n=Top/Reference/Times%20Topics/People/N/Nemy,%20Enid. Retrieved 2007-11-27. 
  16. ^ Metress, Christopher (1994). The Critical Response to Dashiell Hammett. Greenwood Press. 
  17. ^ Johnson, Diane (1983). Dashiell Hammett, a Life. Random House. 
  18. ^ Petri Liukkonen. "Dashiell Hammett". Books and Writers. http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/dhammett.htm. Retrieved 2007-11-27. 
  19. ^ 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
  20. ^ 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."
  21. ^ Hellman's Introduction to The Big Knockover pp. xi & xii
  22. ^ 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.")
  23. ^ Hellman's Introduction to The Big Knockover p. xx
  24. ^ Hellman's Introduction to The Big Knockover p. xxvi
  25. ^ Checklist of Dashiell Hammett FictionChecklist of Dashiell Hammett Fiction
  26. ^ Bleiler, Everett (1948). The Checklist of Fantastic Literature. Chicago: Shasta Publishers. pp. 140. 
  27. ^ Harris, Paul (February 4, 2011). "Dashiell Hammett's lost works found in Texas". The Guardian (London). http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/feb/04/dashiell-hammett-unpublished-works-found. 
  28. ^ Chandler, Raymond, "The Simple Art of Murder". The Atlantic Monthly, v. 174, December 14, 1944, pp. 53-59.
  29. ^ Parker, Dorothy. "Oh, Look - Two Good Books," The New Yorker, v. 7, April 25, 1931, pp. 83-84.
  30. ^ Manchette, Jean-Patrick. "Toast to Dash," (translated by Mitchell Abidor) Le Matin, August 16, 1980, accessed June 20, 2011.
  31. ^ a b c Hammett, Dashiell. Lost Stories, Vince Emery Productions, 2005, p. i.
  32. ^ a b Trailing Dashiell Hammett, BBC Radio 4, September 9, 2005, 11:30 p.m.
  33. ^ a b c Hammett, Dashiell. Lost Stories, Vince Emery Productions, 2005, p. ii.
  34. ^ Queen, Ellery. "Postscript" in Hammett, Dashiell. A Man Named Thin and Other Stories by Dashiell Hammett, Mercury Press, 1962, p. 31.
  35. ^ Hammett, Dashiell. Lost Stories, Vince Emery Productions, 2005, p. 17.
  36. ^ Macdonald, Ross. "The Writer as Detective Hero" in Self-Portrait, Capra Press, 1981, pp. 113-122.
  37. ^ Gores, Joe. "It Was a Diamond, All Right" in Hammett, Dashiell. Lost Stories, Vince Emery Productions, 2005, pp. 15, 17.


  • Mundell, E.H. A List of the Original Appearances of Dashiell Hammett's Magazine Work, 1968, The Kent State University, Ohio.
  • Layman, Richard. Dashiell Hammett: A Descriptive Bibliography, 1979, Pittsburgh Series in Bibliography, University of Pittsburgh Press.
  • Lovisi, Gary. Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler: A Checklist and Bibliography of Their Paperback Appearances, 1994, Gryphon Books.


  • Nolan, William F. Dashiell Hammett: A Casebook, 1969, McNally & Lofin, Santa Barbara.
  • Fechheimer, David, editor. City of San Francisco: Dashiell Hammett Issue, 4 November 1975, City Publishing, San Francisco.
  • Braun, Martin. Prototypen der amerikanischen Kriminalzahlung: Die Romane und Kurzgeschichten Carroll John Daly und Dashiell Hammett, 1977, Lang, Frankfurt.
  • Layman, Richard. Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett, 1981, Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich, New York
  • Nolan, William F. Hammett: A Life at the Edge, 1983, Congdon & Weed, New York.
  • Johnson, Diane. Dashiell Hammett: A Life, 1983, Random House, New York.
  • Marling, William. Dashiell Hammett, 1983, Twayne, New York.
  • Symons, Julian. Dashiell Hammett, 1985, Harcourt, Brace & Javonovich, New York.
  • Gregory, Sinda. Private Investigations: The Novels of Dashiell Hammett, 1985, Southern Illinois University Press.
  • Christopher Metress, ed. The Critical Response to Dashiell Hammett, 1994, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut.
  • Maurin, Maria Jose Alvarez. Claves Para un Enigma: La Poetica del Misterio en la Narrativa de Dashiell Hammett, 1994, Universidad de Leon.
  • Mellon, Joan. Hellman and Hammett, 1996, Harper Collins, New York.
  • Beunat, Natalie. Dashiell Hammett: Parcours d'une oeuvre, 1997, Encrage Edition, Amiens.
  • Gale, Robert L. A Dashiell Hammett Companion, 2000, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut.
  • Layman, Richard. Literary Masters, Volume 3: Dashiell Hammett, 2000, Gale Group, Detroit.
  • Hammett, Jo. Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers, 2001, Carroll and Graf Publishers.
  • Panek, Leroy Lad. Reading Early Hammett: A Critical Study of the Fiction Prior to The Maltese Falcon, 2004, McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina.
  • Lopez, Jesus Angel Gonzalez. La Narrativa Popular de Dashiell Hammett: Pulps, Cine, Y Comics, 2004, Biblioteca Javier Coy d'Estudis Nord-Americans, Universitat de Valencia.
  • Layman, Richard, guest editor. Clues: A Journal of Detection; Theme Issue: Dashiell Hammett, Winter 2005, Heldref Publications, Washington DC.
  • Thompson, George J. "Rhino". Hammett's Moral Vision, 2007, Vince Emery Productions, San Francisco.
  • Herron, Don. The Dashiell Hammett Tour: Thirtieth Anniversary Guidebook, 2009, Vince Emery Productions, San Francisco.
  • Lillian Hellman's three volumes of memoir, An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento, and Scoundrel Time contain much Hammett-related material.

External links

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