This, the initial biography of Samuel Dashiell Hammett, shares an inevitable handicap with its subject: that of being first. Richard Layman essays the task with an emphasis on basic information that is certain to disappoint many readers and reviewers who will expect something much more sensational. He relies exclusively on public and private records, published statements, verifiable interviews and testimony, and Hammett’s own writing. Layman gives fair warning of this in his Preface: he is interested in what actually happened, to the extent that he has been able to substantiate it. His style is deliberately pedestrian. He does not interpret, he does not speculate, and he rarely infers. He neither suppresses nor exploits. Thus the book is often a recital of facts, plot summaries, records, and transcripts.
However frustrating this approach to a first biography may be, it is the only correct one. It forms the essential base upon which any ensuing biographical studies of Hammett must be constructed. A writer of less integrity than Layman might have produced a semifictional biography replete with colorful speculation and innuendo: after all, Hammett was a colorful personality. If Layman felt any temptation to do so, he has resisted it successfully. Shadow Man is essentially a detailed report, notable for directness and objectivity.
A further handicap that confronted Layman was the evident reluctance of Lillian Hellman, Hammett’s closest friend and intermittent lover for some thirty years, to assist those who have attempted to carry out research on his life and work. Her recorded comments vary from statements to the effect that a biography was her own intended project to a remark that she would never write one. Hellman does not consider herself a sentimentalist, and she has made this clear in her published memoirs; however, it is equally clear that the bond between herself and Hammett was a close if stormy one—and, perhaps, too personal for her to share. Layman undertook Shadow Man without Hellman’s blessing and she did not hinder him.
Yet another handicap is Hammett’s own reticence and sense of privacy, a barrier that will always be difficult to penetrate. He seldom revealed much of his inner self and he frequently obscured his own trail. Layman has followed up many leads and asked many questions; he has also been assisted by two other Hammett researchers, David Fechheimer and William Godschalk, who have shared their own findings with him. Fechheimer, appropriately enough, is a San Francisco detective who has applied the methods of his profession to Hammett.
Layman readily admits that there are gaps in this account, and he has made no attempt to conceal them. This is perhaps an understatement: the facts themselves raise a great many questions, aside from speculation in areas where the records are silent. This aspect of Shadow Man underscores its greatest importance to other researchers. The known is clearly defined and the paths of future inquiry are evident, although they are not belabored. That there will be more books about Hammett is a foregone conclusion; aside from his contribution to American literature, he was a complex man whose life contained enough material for several books, all of them interesting.
Layman’s account of Hammett’s childhood is well-drawn and circumstantial, but the area is one that deserves much further exploration. Born in 1894 to Richard and Annie (Bond) Hammett, he was christened Samuel Dashiell. The difficult middle name, pronounced with the accent on the second syllable, has doubtless baffled all of Hammett’s readers and most of his friends, to whom he was known as either Dash or Sam. It was provided by Annie, who thus honored her ancestors the De Chiells. Richard was a drinker and a womanizer; Annie was tubercular. Hammett evidently inherited his mother’s illness or a weakness in regard to it. He would also appear to have inherited his father’s behavioral traits, for, although he swore he would never treat any woman the way his father treated his mother, he was unable to keep that promise in later life.
Hammett worked for Pinkerton’s as a detective, except for a brief tour of duty with the Army, from 1915 until he was hospitalized with tuberculosis in 1920. He married his nurse, Josephine Dolan, in 1921. Unable to work full time, he tried his hand at writing—first with advertising copy, then with short fiction. His first detective story featuring the “Continental Op” appeared in the leading detective fiction pulp magazine, Black Mask, in 1923.
Pulp fiction has long been automatically dismissed as trash by a literary establishment that has never bothered to study it. It is true that this genre has several characteristics that militate against its acceptance as valid literature, all deriving from the formula to which it was written: simple plotting, sketchy characterization, exotic and sometimes improbable settings, total exclusion of sex except for occasional implications, the requirement of a happy or triumphant ending for the protagonist and defeat for his opponent, with subordination of all other elements to action. Action and more action was demanded by editors, and the writers cheerfully supplied it.
These drawbacks aside, there is something to be said in favor of pulp literature. It...
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