The Maltese Falcon. The Thin Man. Red Harvest. Dashiell Hammett wrote some of the greatest and most enduring detective stories of the 20th century, stories that also became some of the most celebrated examples of noir cinema. What gave him such an unerring eye and ear for cops and crooks, bootleggers, politicians, inventors, the runaway daughters of wealthy families, and all the other colorful characters who populate his most famous stories? It probably didn’t hurt that Hammett spent years as a detective himself before launching into a career as a crime writer.
With time off to serve in World War I, Hammett worked for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency from 1915 to 1922. While he started with the Pinkertons as a simple clerk, it didn’t take long for him to be promoted to doing actual detective work. In his role as a private eye, Hammett was mentored by another Pinkerton detective, James Wright, upon whom Hammett is said to have based one of his more enduring creations, the unnamed detective known simply as the “Continental Op.” While perhaps not Hammett’s most famous creation, the Continental Op was certainly his most prolific, lending his presence to dozens of short stories and two of Hammett’s novels.
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Established in the 1850s, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency has a storied history going back at least as far as the American Civil War. Pinkerton agents acted as bodyguards for President Abraham Lincoln after their founder claimed to have foiled an assassination attempt against Lincoln while he was still president-elect. Over the years, Pinkertons filled a number of roles and remain probably the most famous detective agency in the world to this day. During Hammett’s time, however, one of the primary functions they were called upon to serve was as strike-breakers.
In fact, Red Harvest, Hammett’s first novel, is said to have been based heavily upon a time when Hammett and several other Pinkerton agents were sent to Montana to infiltrate a strike being held by copper miners. During that time, union organizer Frank Little was beaten dragged behind a car, and ultimately lynched from the railroad trestle of the Milwaukee Bridge. While Hammett was not involved in Little’s death, rumors have circulated since that other Pinkerton operatives were, and that the Pinkertons had, in fact, been sent to Montana to kill Little. Whatever the truth of those rumors, the whole experience left a bad taste in Hammett’s mouth.
Hammett was a lifelong leftist and, later, a member of the Communist Party. The exact nature of his views have been the subject of some debate over the years, but that he campaigned against fascism and devoted his time and energy to left-wing activism is beyond dispute. Not long after the lynching of Frank Little, Hammett left the Pinkerton Detective Agency behind and embarked upon a career as a writer in San Francisco.
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He sold his first story to The Smart Set in 1922, and his first novel was published in 1929. The following years would see him attain great literary success, eventually writing the screenplays for the sequels to the movie version of The Thin Man, as well as an adaptation of his novel The Glass Key. Though Hammett had departed the “fringes” where he had dwelled as a detective, he wasn’t destined to lead an easy life. He had contracted tuberculosis during the war, and that, as well as alcoholism, dogged his health the rest of his life. In spite of that, he re-enlisted in the U.S. Army following the attack on Pearl Harbor, though he had previously served on the League of American Writers’ “Keep America Out of War Committee” and was by then a member of the Communist Party.
As much as his health problems, his political activism would come back to haunt him when he returned from the war. He was elected president of the Civil Rights Congress in 1946, but he was also blackballed and ultimately arrested and tried under the Smith Act, which targeted those who “advocated violent overthrow of the government,” which—at this point in history—mostly meant Communists. Hammett was arrested in an effort to get him to identify other members of the Civil Rights Congress, but instead he was found guilty of contempt of court when he refused to name names and served six months in a federal penitentiary.
Later, Hammett was called before the famous House of Un-American Activities Committee and Senator Joseph McCarthy. Hammett testified but refused to help the Committee track down other “reds”. He was ultimately released, but, like so many others at the time, he was blacklisted in Hollywood and elsewhere. A few years later, he died of lung cancer in Lenox Hill Hospital and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
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While Hammett had enjoyed the high life for a time, when his novels were at their most successful, near the end he was ill and nearly penniless, and he had stopped writing. When asked why, he was quoted by a reporter as saying, “I stopped writing because I found I was repeating myself. It is the beginning of the end when you discover you have style”, words that could have very easily come out of the mouths of any one of his witty, hard-boiled protagonists.
“Write what you know” is an admonishment often handed out to young writers, and it must be said that Hammett certainly knew about what he wrote. But whether he was drawing from his own experiences as a detective or creating new tales whole-cloth, there’s no denying that Hammett left behind some of the most distinctive and enthralling crime stories ever told.
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