Dashiell Hammett (Samuel Dashiell Hammett) Biography
(1894–1961), (Samuel Dashiell Hammett), Black Mask, Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, $106,000 Blood Money
American crime writer, born in Maryland; he left school at 13, and from 1915 worked for Pinkerton's Detective Agency, first in Baltimore, then in San Francisco. He served in the US Army in the First World War, and again in the Second, when he was stationed in the Aleutian Islands. From 1923 he contributed short stories, originally under the name of Peter Collinson, to pulp magazines, especially Black Mask, where his first four novels were serialized. Later he worked in Hollywood as a screenwriter; there in 1930 he met the playwright Lillian Hellman, his friend and companion until his death. After the 1930s he wrote little, devoting himself to political activities: as trustee of the Civil Rights Congress he spent five months in prison in 1951 for contempt of court, and two years later his Communist affiliations were investigated by the McCarthy sub-committee. The detective in most of his short stories and in the novels Red Harvest (1929), The Dain Curse (1929), and $106,000 Blood Money (1943; also published as Blood Money and as The Big Knock-Over) is the unnamed middle-aged, fat Continental Op, who works for an agency based on Pinkerton's. His best works are The Maltese Falcon (1930), filmed by John Huston in 1941 with Humphrey Bogart as the detective Sam Spade; The Glass Key (1931), probably his masterpiece, a story of political corruption in an American city; and The Thin Man (1934), a sparkling, semi-humorous crime novel, whose main characters, Nick and Nora Charles, were played by William Powell and Myrna Loy in a series of comedy thrillers of the 1930s and 1940s. Hammett writes in a bare, stripped-down style which in The Glass Key attains a complexity and subtlety that has led Julian Symons to claim that it ‘can stand comparison with any American novel of its decade’. The Maltese Falcon is one of the first, and best, of American private eye novels, rivalled only by Chandler and Ross Macdonald. There are biographies by Richard Layman (1981), William F. Nolan (1983), and Diane Johnson (1983). See P. Woolfe, Beams Falling: The Art of Dashiell Hammett (1980).