Samuel Dashiell Hammett was an American author of hardboiled detective novels and short stories. 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”.
Hammett was born on a farm called “Hopewell and Aim” off Great Mills Road, St. Mary’s County, in southern Maryland. His parents were Richard Thomas Hammett and Anne Bond Dashiell. (The Dashiells are an old Maryland family, the name being an Anglicization of the French De Chiel; it is pronounced “da-SHEEL“, not “DASH-el“.)
He 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 (this later became his influence for most his books) He served as an operative for the Pinkerton Agency from 1915 to 1921, with time off to serve in World War I. However, the agency’s role in union strike-breaking eventually disillusioned him.
During World War I, Hammett enlisted in the United States Army and served in the Motor Ambulance Corps. However, he became ill with the Spanish flu and later contracted tuberculosis. He spent the war as a patient in Cushman Hospital, Tacoma, Washington. While hospitalized he met and married a nurse, Josephine Dolan, and had two daughters, Mary Jane (1921) and Josephine (1926).
Shortly after the birth of their second child, Health Services nurses informed Josephine that due to Hammett’s tuberculosis, she and the children should not live with him. So they rented a place in San Francisco. Hammett would visit on weekends, but the marriage soon fell apart. Hammett still supported his wife and daughters financially with the income he made from his writing.
Hammett turned to drinking, advertising, and eventually, writing. His work at the detective agency provided him the inspiration for his writings.
The detective who goes by no name other than “The Continental Operative” served as the hero in many of Hammett’s early short stories, largely following a simple investigative formula. His writing was composed largely of minimalist sentences, and a steady accumulation of evidence. These stories culminated in the two Continental Op novels, Red Harvest and The Dain Curse. In Red Harvest, Hammett achieved a “Poetry of violence” as the Continental Op took a hand in the purging of mob bosses from a corrupt mining town. The Dain Curse was a more straightforward murder mystery as everyone close to a young woman met their demise, leading to the twisted mind of the murderer.
As Hammett’s literary style matured, he relied less and less on the super-criminal and turned more to the kind of realistic, hard-boiled fiction seen in The Maltese Falcon or The Thin Man. In The Simple Art of Murder, Hammett’s successor in the field, Raymond Chandler, summarized Hammett’s 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. (Read more.)