Hammett, Dashiell (Samuel Dashiell Hammett) (pulp fiction writer)



In a single 10-year period of extraordinary creativity (followed, equally extraordinarily, by 30 years of writer’s block), Dashiell Hammett produced a series of short stories and five novels that remain among the benchmarks of American genre fiction. The author of The Maltese Falcon, Red Harvest, and The Thin Man, Hammett is at once a founding father of the hard-boiled crime story and arguably its foremost literary stylist. Before Hammett, the detective story was a fairly bloodless form, a kind of literary parlor game. Hammett changed all that. With hard, precise language and authentic-seeming crime-solvers—not brainy, eccentric aristocrats, as was common—Hammett brought the real world into the mystery genre.

Born in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, on May 27, 1894, the largely self-educated Samuel Dashiell Hammett at age 20 answered a help-wanted ad in a Baltimore newspaper and became an employee of the Pinkerton’s National Detective Service. As a gun-toting Pinkerton, for the next several years he roamed the country on a variety of assignments, from missing persons and “wandering husband” cases to violent strikebreaking assignments. World War I interrupted his detective work, and it was during his stint in the army that Hammett was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Following long-term, but unsuccessful, treatment in military hospitals, he returned to civilian life in San Francisco and there attempted to fulfill a long-nurtured dream of becoming a writer. After some false starts with literary vignettes and melodrama in a Southeast Asian setting, Hammett soon recognized the value of his colorful Pinkerton experience as potential subject matter. Finding a sympathetic home for his work in Black Mask, a pulp magazine that at that time offered mystery, detective, and cowboy fiction, Hammett introduced the distinctive style and approach that would change the face of American mystery writing.

His recurring protagonist and narrator, an unnamed operative for the Continental Detective Agency (“The Continental Op,” as the magazine would dub him), was an urban professional— tough, street-smart, conversant with both sides of the law. unlike the other mystery-writing contributors to the Black Mask, Hammett the former Pinkerton knew the actual ways and means of crime and detection. His stories were colorful and had plenty of car chases and shootouts and sexy dames to entertain the thrill-seeking reader, but the overall effect was realistic, not fanciful. Ham-mett’s innovative writing—the sentences icy cold, full of understatement and absent overt emotion, the dialogue sharp and cynical—had the ring of truth. This was how criminals really talked and how a real detective did his job.

Dashiell Hammett was a founding father of the hard-boiled crime story.

Dashiell Hammett was a founding father of the hard-boiled crime story.

In 1927 Hammett’s first novel-length work, a story featuring the Op called The Cleansing of Poi-sonville, was published serially in Black Mask beginning with the November issue. As much a gangster epic as a detective mystery, Poisonville tells of a Montana mining town completely run by criminals and the Op’s attempt to destroy them by pitting one rival gang against another. The novel contains—in the unbowdlerized serial version— 26 murders, and writing as spare and clear as any in the history of American fiction. As Red Harvest, the novel was published in topic form by Alfred A. Knopf in 1929. In the next three years, Black Mask would introduce three more Hammett novels: The Dain Curse, The Glass Key (another groundbreaker, detailing mob involvement in big-city politics), and The Maltese Falcon. The latter, the ultimate hard-boiled detective caper, featured the private eye Sam Spade and a dazzling opposition—lush femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy and the homosexual troika of rotund Casper Gut-man, gunsel Wilmer, and perfumed Levantine Joel Cairo—in their ultimately futile pursuit of “the black bird.”

Hammett’s fifth and final novel was The Thin Man, published in 1934. This was the famous tale that introduced Nick and Nora Charles, whose spirited, sparring relationship was based upon the real life duo of Hammett and his long-time lover, the writer Lillian Hellman (1905-1984). Nick is a former detective now living happily on the wealth of his loving wife Nora, but he is drawn back into the fold during a drunken visit to New York at Christmastime by an old friend with a missing relative. Though often criticized by hard-boiled fans for having a lighter, more frivolous tone than Hammett’s other work, The Thin Man is in fact as excellent and original as any of the other novels, with tough, smart prose, precisely etched characters, and vivid settings (high-life and lowlife Manhattan at the tail end of Prohibition), along with brilliant and in this case sometimes hilarious dialogue. MGM bought Hammett’s novel and immediately turned it into a film, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as an unforgettable Nick and Nora—five sequels followed. As entertaining as the novel and highly influential, The Thin Man movie helped initiate the “screwball comedy” trend that featured squabbling, wisecracking romantic duos, and made viable the notion of a sexy married couple.

Perhaps even more influential in Hollywood history was an adaptation of The Maltese Falcon (in fact, the third version in 10 years), filmed in 1941 by writer-director John Huston, with Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade. The critical and commercial success of this tough private-eye thriller—a mystery as hard-boiled as any gangster picture—would spark the era of dark, daring crime films that became known as film noir.

Hammett himself was on the sidelines by this time, unable or unwilling to produce another novel after 1933. He lived a largely dissipated life on movie money and royalties, and later on the largesse of Lillian Hellman. Sickly from tuberculosis and 47 years old, he still managed to serve a hitch in the army during World War II, stationed in the frigid Aleutian Islands. In the early ’50s, as a sometime marxist and political activist, he became a target of anticommunist witch-hunters and was railroaded into a five-month federal prison stay for contempt of court. He died in 1961, broke, with all of his work out of print in his own country. He lives on as one of popular fiction’s immortals, an artist and innovator.



  • “Afraid of a Gun” (1924);
  • “Assistant Murder, The” (1926);
  • “Bodies Pile Up” (1923);
  • “Corkscrew” (1925);
  • “Creeping Siamese” (1926);
  • “Crooked Souls” (1923);
  • “Dead Yellow Women” (1925);
  • “Death and Company” (1930);
  • “Farewell Murder, The” (1930);
  • “Fly Paper” (1929);
  • “4,106,000 Blood Money” (1927);
  • “Golden Horseshoe, The” (1924);
  • “Gutting of Couffignal, The” (1925);
  • “House in Turk Street, The” (1924);
  • “It” (1923);
  • “Man Called Spade, A” (1932);
  • “Man Who Killed Dan Adams, The” (1924);
  • “New Racket” (1924);
  • “One Hour” (1924);
  • “Ruffian’s Wife” (1925);
  • “Scorched Face, The” (1925);
  • “Tenth Clew, The” (1924);
  • “Zigzags of Treachery” (1924)

As Peter Collinson:

  • “Arson Plus” (1923);
  • “Road Home, The” (1922);
  • “Slippery Fingers” (1923);
  • “Vicious Circle, The” (1923)


  • Adventures of Sam Spade and Other Stories (1944);
  • Big Knockover: Selected Stories and Short Novels, The (edited by Lillian Hellman) (1966);
  • Continental Op, The (1945);
  • Continental Op, The (edited by Steven Marcus) (1974);
  • Dain Curse, The (1929);
  • Dead Yellow Women (1947);
  • Glass Key, The (1931);
  • Hammett Homicides (1946);
  • Maltese Falcon, The (1930);
  • Man Named Thin and Other Stories, A (1951);
  • Nightmare Town (1948);
  • Red Harvest (1929);
  • Return of the Continental Op, The (1945);
  • Thin Man, The (1934);
  • Woman in the Dark (1933)

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