Alternately lionized and vilified in life, Dashiell Hammett remained virtually ignored by critics and biographers alike until some twenty years after his death in 1961. The publication during the 1970’s of three volumes of memoirs by his longtime friend and companion Lillian Hellman occasioned a mild renewal of interest in Hammett and his work, but it was not until the end of the decade and even into the 1980’s that Hammett’s remembered presence began to assert itself in films, television documentaries, and works of criticism dealing in whole or in part with the mystery genre. Peter Wolfe’s Beams Falling: The Art of Dashiell Hammett (1979) brought fresh attention to Hammett’s contributions both as storyteller and as stylist, and in 1981, the first biography of Hammett appeared: Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett, by Richard Layman, who two years earlier had compiled a useful Hammett bibliography. Shadow Man, although acknowledged by critics as a necessary prolegomenon to future Hammett studies, was generally seen as an assemblage of facts already known rather than a work based on original research. A second Hammett biography—Hammett: A Life at the Edge, by William F. Nolan—appeared early in 1983, several months before Johnson’s book. Nolan, like Layman, had been denied access to the voluminous correspondence between Hammett and Hellman; his account of Hammett, as one reviewer observed, “magnified the legend, thus losing the man.” Diane Johnson’s insightful and innovative volume, although not an authorized or official biography of Hammett, was written, unlike Layman’s and Nolan’s, with Hellman’s full contribution and cooperation. Written at times with the freedom and innovation of a novel, Dashiell Hammett: A Life manages the unusual feat of keeping the general reader entertained while keeping the specialist well supplied with meticulously documented facts.
Originally projected for publication as early as 1980, Johnson’s biography of Hammett was several years in the making and may well antedate, at least in its research, the preparation of Layman’s Shadow Man. Johnson’s effort, profiting from the delay, corrects several errors of fact in Layman’s account while avoiding duplication in certain areas where Shadow Man provides adequate coverage. Johnson does not, for example, feel the need to explain that the name Dashiell, Hammett’s mother’s maiden name, is French in origin and therefore bears the accent on the second syllable; regardless of how he signed himself in print, Hammett was generally known to his friends as Sam or—as Hellman called him—Dash. Where Johnson excels is in her organization and presentation of the ironies in Hammett’s life. All the details of his life and career are here, but what seems to interest Johnson even more is the texture that emerges from those details.
An accomplished novelist as well as a scholar in her own right, Diane Johnson begins her account of Hammett’s life as one might begin a novel, in medias res. Hammett is fifty-seven years of age, burned out as a creative writer, and serving time in a federal prison for refusing to name contributors to the bail fund of the Civil Rights Congress, of which he had served as one of four trustees. The reader’s first glimpse of Hammett will prove artistically valid as the rest of the picture comes into view, portraying as it does, a man of strong principle set off from society less by his deeds than by his character. Even at close range, however, Hammett remains an enigmatic and maddeningly elusive figure, oddly inaccessible even when present, vaguely admirable at his best and at his worst, most unlovable indeed. To her credit, Johnson ultimately manages what is perhaps as fully rounded a portrait of Hammett as we are likely to get.
Returning, after her initial chapter, to a generally chronological account, Johnson proceeds to sketch in Hammett’s origins in rural Maryland, where he was born, in 1894, into a well-settled but less than prosperous Roman Catholic family. Around the age of sixteen, Hammett, like his sister before him and his brother after him, cut short his formal education to help with the family finances. Relations between Hammett and his father remained strained up until the latter’s death in 1948, and Johnson is quick to draw inferences from the prevalence in Hammett’s work of “a theme unusual in literature,” the murder of a son by his father. Drifting from job to job, young Hammett by the age of twenty secured a job as an office worker for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, which soon thereafter sent him out into the field as an operative. At last, Hammett had found a line of work that suited him, and he would remain with Pinkerton, serving mainly in the Western states, until America’s involvement in World War I.
Johnson traces the origins of Hammett’s left-wing politics to his experiences with Pinkerton, whose operatives were often hired by management to defend itself against the burgeoning labor movement. One incident, in particular, appears to have loomed large: Hammett, along with other Pinkerton men, was approached to assassinate a labor leader for a fee but declined. Shortly thereafter, the man in question, Frank Little, an organizer for the International Workers of the World, or “Wobblies,” was dragged from a neighboring room in Hammett’s own hotel by hired thugs and lynched, presumably to set an example of what would happen to union leaders in Montana. Hammett was never to forget the incident and would often refer to it later, both in conversation and in writing. In any case, Hammett soon thereafter perceived his true civic duty and enlisted in the Army.
As Hammett was quick to tell people, once he became famous, he served in the Army during World War I but did not serve in the war; he was never shipped overseas. Not long after his enlistment, he contracted the epidemic flu and was discovered at that time to be suffering also from tuberculosis, presumably contracted years earlier from his consumptive mother. Mustered out in 1919 with the rank of sergeant and a full-disability pension of forty dollars per month, Hammett soon returned to work for Pinkerton’s. His health, however, remained poor, and shortly after returning to his familiar Western territory, he was obliged to seek treatment at the Public Health Service hospital in Tacoma, Washington; there he met Jose Dolan, a nurse who, though barely twenty-four years of age in 1920, had served in World War I as a commissioned officer. What began as a simple dalliance—a common occurrence in Hammett’s life—turned to something more serious when Jose became pregnant, and Hammett, oddly in character, saw fit to do the honorable thing. Despite his precarious health, Hammett was still employed at Pinkerton’s and apparently calculated that his salary, supplemented by his pension check, would suffice to maintain a small household. In a now-famous incident, however, Hammett proved too proficient at detective work for his own good and soon thereafter resigned from Pinkerton’s in a fit of pique and disgust: Hired by Pinkerton’s to sail for Australia on the liner Sonoma to search for a quarter-million dollars in gold presumably hidden aboard, the twenty-seven-year-old operative somehow managed to find the contraband before Sonoma even...
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