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...
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