Together with his contemporary Raymond Chandler(1888-1959), Dashiell Hammett is credited with defining the form, scope, and tone of the modern detective novel, a distinctly American genre that departs considerably from the earlier tradition inspired by the British. Chandler, although six years Hammett’s senior, did not in fact begin publishing detective fiction until 1933 and readily acknowledged the younger writer’s prior claim. Together, both authors have exerted considerable influence upon later exponents of the detective genre, notably on Ross Macdonald, their most distinguished successor. Hammett’s work in particular has served also as a stylistic model for many novelists working outside the detective genre, among them Ernest Hemingway andJohn O’Hara.
Unlike his predecessors in the mystery genre, Hammett adopted a starkly realistic, tough-minded tone in his works, sustaining an atmosphere in which questions outnumber answers and no one is to be trusted. Hammett’s reputation ultimately rests on his creation of two characters who embody the moral ambiguities of the modern world: Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon) and Nick Charles (The Thin Man). Widely popularized through film adaptations of the novels in which they appear, Spade and Charles are among the most famous American detectives, known even to those with little more than marginal interest in the mystery genre. Tough-minded if occasionally softhearted, both characters may be seen as particularized refinements of Hammett’s Continental Op, professional detectives who remain true to their personal code of honor and skeptical with regard to everything and everyone else.
Partially because of declining health, Hammett wrote no novels after the age of forty. His reputation, however, was by that time secure; even in the following century, his five novels would remain landmarks of the genre, a model for future novelists and a formidable standard of comparison.