English 208:
Lecture 8

Metropolitan Port

Early 20th Century Fiction: Hammett

Samuel Dashiell Hammett was born in Maryland on May 27, 1894. He left school at 13 and drifted from job to job until he found permanent work as a detective for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. He worked there for several years, and the experiences he had affected him profoundly. He served in the army during World War I and contracted tuberculosis. Although he recovered, his health was damaged and eventually he had to give up detective work.

So he began writing detective stories. He had married and had two daughters, and he needed the money. In 1922, he published his first story in the new Black Mask magazine, which had been started by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. His first character was the Continental Op, a nameless, tough, professional operative. Hammett's most famous character, perhaps, is Sam Spade, introduced in The Maltese Falcon (1939). Sam Spade is both cynical and idealistic. He lives (like Hemingway's characters) by his own code, moving comfortably between the legal and illegal, but refusing to violate his own sense of right and wrong. (He was much like Hammett himself: years later, in 1951, Hammett refused to testify about the activities of several communist associates. He didn't know the answers to the questions the court was asking him, and he could have said that and gotten out of trouble. But he thought that what the courts were doing was wrong, so he refused to cooperate by answering any questions at all. He was found guilty of contempt of court and served 6 months in prison, where the conditions aggravated his tuberculosis and he nearly died.)

By 1930, Hammett was living in Hollywood, writing for the movies. He'd had several novels published and was part of the Hollywood elite, writing by day and drinking by night. He met Lillian Hellman, who was new to Hollywood, and they were instantly a couple, despite the fact that both were still married. They moved in together and eventually moved to New York. In 1934, he wrote The Thin Man. The main characters are Nick and Nora Charles, a quick-witted, wisecracking married couple who are absolutely loyal to one another. The character of Nora was based on Lillian Hellman.

He wrote very little after The Thin Man, except for the movies. By now, he was an alcoholic, and his drinking made his illnesses worse. His relationship with Hellman was on and off. His behavior became increasingly erratic and he found it harder and harder to get writing jobs. He served in Alaska during World War II, and that revived his illness. His time in prison during the 1950s didn't help, and although he had quit drinking in the 1948, his health was ruined. He died on January 10, 1961.

With Raymond Chandler, Carroll John Daly, James M. Cain, and others, Hammett developed a style of detective story known as "hard-boiled." Hard-boiled detectives are smart, tough, and unsentimental. Hard-boiled stories almost always are populated by underworld figures, wealthy people with too much money and too few morals, and occasionally, genuinely good people (these are mostly the victims; innocence is not a good quality to have in a hard-boiled world).

Not all hard-boiled detectives have the same philosophy, however. Hammett's detectives have a core of existentialism: life, they believe, is inherently meaningless. The meaning in life comes from establishing a code by which to live and then adhering to it with enormous self-discipline. Hammett's detectives are cool, objective, and distant; they are willing to lie, steal, and manipulate to solve a case--that is, to protect the good people from the bad ones.

Some of the information in this lecture derives from:

1. Eds. Jack Hicks, et al. The Literature of California Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
2. Eds. Deane Mansfield-Kelley and Lois A. Marchino. The Longman Anthology of Detective Fiction. New York: Pearson, 2005.
3. William Wright. Lillian Hellman: The Image, The Woman. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986.
4. Diane Johnson. Dashiell Hammett: A Life New York: Random House, 1983.