Dashiell Hammett Hammett, Dashiell (Literary Masters) - Essay


(Literary Masters)

Dashiell Hammett


27 May 1894: Samuel Dashiell Hammett is born in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, to Richard and Annie Bond Hammett.

1900: Richard Hammett moves his family to 2942 Poplar Street in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Later that year, the family moves to 419 North Sixtieth Street in Philadelphia.

1901: The Hammetts move to 212 North Stricker Street in Baltimore, Maryland, and Dashiell enters Public School No. 72.

September 1908: Dashiell Hammett enters Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, where he studies for one semester before quitting school permanently to help his father run a small business.

1909-1915: Hammett holds various, odd jobs at such companies as the B & O Railroad and Poe and Davies Brokerage House.

1915: Hammett becomes an operative for Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency.

24 June 1918 - 29 May 1919: Hammett serves in the U.S. Army. During his service, he contracts Spanish Influenza, which develops into tuberculosis.

May 1920: Hammett moves to Spokane, Washington, where he works as a Pinkerton.

6 November 1920: Hammett is hospitalized, 100 percent disabled with pulmonary tuberculosis, at the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital Number 59, also called Cushman Hospital. He meets Jose Dolan, who is a nurse there.

21 February 1921: Hammett leaves Cushman Hospital for USPHS Hospital Number 64 at Camp Kearny, near San Diego.

15 May 1921: Hammett is discharged from the hospital and goes to live briefly in Seattle at 1117 Third Avenue.

June 1921: Hammett moves to 120 Ellis Street in San Francisco.

7 July 1921: Hammett marries Jose Dolan. He works as a Pinkerton operative. They live at 620 Eddy Street.

16 October 1921: The Hammetts’ daughter Mary is born.

1 December 1921: The date Hammett claims to have quit detective work for good.

February 1922: Hammett begins a one-and-a-half-year vocational training course at Munson’s Business College.

October 1922: Hammett’s first publication, in The Smart Set.

March 1926: Hammett quits writing to take a job as advertising manager at Samuels Jewelry Company in San Francisco.

24 May 1926: The Hammetts’ second daughter, Josephine, is born.

20 July 1926: Hammett resigns from Samuels due to poor health.

15 January 1927: Hammett begins reviewing mystery books for The Saturday Review of Literature, which he continues to do until 29 October 1929.

February 1927: “The Big Knock-Over,” Hammett’s first story in eleven months, appears in Black Mask.

November 1927: The first of four parts of Hammett’s first novel, later called Red Harvest, is published in Black Mask.

November 1928: The first of four parts of Hammett’s second novel, later called The Dain Curse, is published in Black Mask.

1 February 1929: Red Harvest is published by Knopf.

19 July 1929: The Dain Curse is published by Knopf.

Fall 1929: Hammett lives briefly at 1155 Leavenworth Avenue in San Francisco before he moves in October to New York, where he lives at 155 East Thirtieth Street. Mrs. Hammett and their daughters move to Los Angeles.

September 1929: The first of five parts of The Maltese Falcon, Hammett’s third novel, is published in Black Mask.

14 February 1930: The Maltese Falcon is published by Knopf.

February 1930: Roadhouse Nights, a movie based on Red Harvest, is released by Paramount.

March 1930: The first of four parts of The Glass Key, Hammett’s fourth novel, is published in Black Mask.

5 April 1930: Hammett begins a six-month stint as mystery-book reviewer for the New York Evening Post.

Summer 1930: Hammett signs a contract with Paramount to write original screen stories. He moves to Hollywood.

22 November 1930: Hammett meets Lillian Hellman in Hollywood.

January 1931: Hammett signs a contract with Warner Bros to write a detective novel to star William Powell.

20 January 1931: The Glass Key is published in London by Knopf.

April 1931: City Streets, a movie based on Hammett’s original story, is released by Paramount.

28 April 1931: Hammett’s screen story “On the Make” is rejected by Warner Bros. He is released from his contract and returns to New York, where he lives at 133 East Thirty-eighth Street.

Spring 1931: Hammett begins, then abandons, a novel called “The Thin Man.”

May 1931. The Maltese Falcon, a movie based on Hammett’s novel, is released by Warner Bros.

8 October 1931: Creeps by Night, an anthology of stories edited, with an introduction, by Hammett, is published.

Winter 1931: Hammett is charged with assaulting actress Elise De Viane during a visit to Hollywood. He is found guilty on 30 June 1932, by default judgment.

29 September 1932: Hammett moves to the Sutton Club Hotel at 330 East Fifty-sixth Street in New York City to work on The Thin Man, which is completed in May 1933.

Winter 1933: Hammett and Hellman move to Homestead, Florida, where they stay until late spring or early summer 1934, when Hammett returns to New York.

December 1933: The Thin Man is published by Redbook.

8 January 1934: The Thin Man is published by Knopf.

29 January 1934: Syndication of Secret Agent X-9, a comic strip written by Hammett, is begun by King Features. Hammett is credited with writing the strip until 27 April 1935.

24 March 1934: Hammett’s last short story, “This Little Pig,” is published in Collier’s.

June 1934: The M-G-M movie The Thin Man is released.

27 September 1934: Universal buys Hammett’s screen story “On the Make” and changes the title to Mister Dynamite for the movie, released in May 1935.

29 October 1934: Hammett begins working as a writer at M-G-M. He moves to Hollywood, where he lives at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

June 1935: The movie The Glass Key is released by Paramount. Hammett signs new contract with M-G-M.

January 1936: Hammett returns to New York, where he is hospitalized at Lenox Hill Hospital for about two weeks. He then moves to the Hotel Madison on East Fifty-eighth Street.

July 1936: Satan Met a Lady, Warner Bros. second movie version of The Maltese Falcon, is released.

Fall 1936: Hammett moves to Princeton, New Jersey, where he rents a house at 90 Cleveland Lane.

25 December 1936: After the Thin Man, a’ movie based on Hammett’s original story, is released by M-G-M.

February 1937: Hammett sells M-G-M all rights to The Thin Man title and characters for $40,000.

Spring 1937: Hammett is asked to leave Princeton by his neighbors, and he returns to Hollywood to work for M-G-M. He lives at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

31 August 1937: A Mexican court grants Jose Hammett a divorce that has no legal standing in the United States.

Summer 1938: Hammett completes work on his second original story for the Thin Man series (Another Thin Man, the third in the series) and turns his attentions to politics and a new novel.

14 July 1939: Hammett’s contract with M-G-M is permanently terminated, and he moves to 14 West Ninth Street in New York City.

Fall 1939: Random House announces “There Was a Young Man,” a new novel by Hammett, which never appears.

November 1939: Another Thin Man is released.

1940: Hammett is national chairman of the Committee on Election Rights—1940, a group to promote the political candidacy of Communist Party members.

2 July 1941: The radio serial The Adventures of the Thin Man, based on Hammett’s characters, begins. It runs, with a wartime interruption, until September 1950.

October 1941: Warner Bros.’ third movie version of The Maltese Falcon, this one directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart, is released.

November 1941: The Shadow of the Thin Man is released by M-G-M.

17 September 1942: Hammett rejoins the army as a private and is stationed at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey.

October 1942: The second movie version of The Glass Key is released by Paramount.

August 1943: Watch on the Rhine, adapted by Hammett and Lillian Hell-man from her play, is released by Warner Bros.

8 September 1943: Hammett arrives in Alaska, where he remains for the duration of the war.

19 January 1944: The first trial issue of The Adakian, a daily newspaper edited by Hammett for army troops, is published.

1944: The Battle of the Aleutians, by Hammett and Robert Colodny, a history of the war against the Japanese on the Aleutian Chain in 1942 and 1943, is published for distribution to Adakian troops.

January 1945: The Thin Man Goes Home is released by M-G-M.

6 September 1945: Hammett, now a sergeant, is honorably discharged from the army. He returns to New York, where he lives briefly at 15 East Sixty-sixth Street before moving to 28 West Tenth Street.

1946: Hammett begins teaching courses in mystery writing at the Jefferson School of Social Science, which he continues until 1956. He serves as a member of the board of trustees for the school from 1949 to 1956.

21 January 1946: The Fat Man, a radio serial based on Hammett’s Continental Op, begins. It runs until 1950.

5 June 1946: Hammett is elected president of the New York Civil Rights Congress, a position he holds until the mid 1950s.

12 July 1946: The Adventures of Sam Spade, a radio serial based on Hammett’s character, begins. It runs until 1951.

28 May 1948: Warner Bros, sues the broadcaster, sponsor, director, and producer of The Adventures of Sam Spade for infringement of copy right. Hammett is later added to the suit, which is settled on 28 December 1951, in Hammett’s favor.

Fall 1949: Hammett works as dramatic-script consultant to stage producer Kermit Bloomgarden.

January 1950: Hammett goes to Hollywood as a screenwriter for Paramount. After six months he leaves Hollywood for good.

Fall 1950-Spring 1951: Hammett works with Hellman and Bloomgarden on producing her play The Autumn Garden.

9 July 1951: Hammett testifies in U.S. District Court about the Civil Rights Congress bail fund. He is judged that evening to be an uncooperative witness in criminal contempt of court and is sentenced to six months in prison, beginning immediately at the Federal House of Detention in New York City.

28 September 1951: Hammett is released from prison and returns briefly to his apartment at Tenth Street. His income is attached by the Internal Revenue Service in lieu of payment of back taxes amounting at that time to $111,008.60.

Spring (?) 1952: Hammett moves to the gatehouse on the estate of Dr. Samuel Rosen in Katonah, New York.

26 March 1953: Hammett testifies before Joseph McCarthy’s Senate subcommittee investigating the purchase of books written by Communists for State Department libraries overseas.

Ca. 1953: Hammett abandons the fragment “Tulip,” his last attempt at writing a novel.

23 February 1955: Hammett testifies before the New York State Joint Legislature Committee investigating charitable and philanthropic agencies and organizations.

August 1955: Hammett has a heart attack at Lillian Hellman’s house on Martha’s Vineyard.

January 1957: Hammett’s federal income tax liability is set at $140,795.96 by civil court.

May 1959: Hammett is granted a pension of $131.10 per month by the Veterans Administration.

10 January 1961: Hammett dies at the Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

13 January 1961: Hammett is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

About Dashiell Hammett

(Literary Masters)

Dashiell Hammett popularized the hard-boiled detective in American crime fiction and, more convincingly than any writer before him, elevated the genre of detective fiction to an art form. He drew on his experience as a private eye to create believable characters in realistic situations. Though Hammett is known as a novelist and short-story writer, his writing career lasted barely more than a decade,...

(The entire section is 14255 words.)

Hammett at Work

(Literary Masters)

Dashiell Hammett worked seriously as a professional author less than seven years during his entire life. From October 1922 to March 1926, he served an apprenticeship as a writer of pulp fiction, turning out forty-two stories in thirty-nine months. He took a year off and resumed his career in a brilliant flourish between summer 1927 and 1931, when he wrote four novels and four long stories. After 1931 he wrote fiction sporadically and without enthusiasm for another couple of years until the end of 1933, and then he essentially quit writing for publication. He wrote screen stories during the...

(The entire section is 6263 words.)

Hammett’s Era

(Literary Masters)

Since Hammett wrote over such a short period of time, it is easy to focus on the social forces that affected his fiction. He was a writer of the 1920s, and all his novels were set during that decade except for The Thin Man, which is set in the winter of 1932. All except a half dozen of...

(The entire section is 6317 words.)

Hammett’s Works

(Literary Masters)

The plot summaries that follow are intended as a reference guide for students. Hammett’s plots are complicated, and readers must have a clear understanding of what happens to appreciate the novels. Hammett’s method as a writer is to reveal character though events—what characters say and do—rather than through narrative comment. It is up to the reader to observe...

(The entire section is 14167 words.)

Hammett on Hammett

(Literary Masters)

Dashiell Hammett rarely gave interviews, and when he did, he almost never took them seriously. There are rare accounts by associates of Hammett’s recounting conversations and giving their impressions of him. The most famous—and the most famously unreliable—are Lillian Hellman’s impressions of Hammett in her...

(The entire section is 7467 words.)

Hammett as Studied

(Literary Masters)

Hammett’s novels have attracted a large audience from the time of their first publication, except for the last decade of his life, after he went to jail in 1951. During that time his novels were dropped from publishers’ lists, and Hammett’s name was rarely mentioned in literary circles. The normal course is for a popular writer’s reputation to gradually fade away after his death, or at least after he stops writing. In Hammett’s case the opposite happened. Upon his death in 1961,...

(The entire section is 23569 words.)

Study Questions

(Literary Masters)

  1. Define the Op’s code, and support your definition with examples from Red Harvest and The Dain Curse.
  2. Compare and contrast Sam Spade and the Continental Op.
  3. Analyze the passages on pages 51-52 from “The Gutting of Couffignal” and The Maltese Falcon. Cite specific examples of Hammett’s revision of the passage and discuss why he made them. What conclusions can you draw about Hammett’s maturity as a writer?
  4. Choose from a novel one of Hammett’s femmes fatale—Dinah Brand from Red Harvest, Gabrielle Leggett from The Dain Curse, Brigid O’Shaughnessy from The Maltese Falcon, Janet Henry from The Glass Key,...

(The entire section is 582 words.)


(Literary Masters)


Red Harvest. New York & London: Knopf, 1929.

The Dain Curse. New York: Knopf, 1929; London: Knopf, 1930.

The Maltese Falcon. New York & London: Knopf, 1930.

The Glass Key. London & New York: Knopf, 1931.

The Thin Man. New York: Knopf, 1934; London: Barker, 1934.

Secret Agent X-9, books 1 and 2. Philadelphia: McKay, 1934.

$106,000 Blood Money. New York: Spivak, 1943.

The Battle of the Aleutians, by Hammett and Robert Colodny. Adak, Alaska: U.S. Army Intelligence Section, Field Force Headquarters, Adak, 1944.

The Adventures of Sam Spade. New York: Spivak, 1944. Republished as They Can Only Hang You Once. New York: The American Mercury / Spivak, 1949.

The Continental Op. New York: Spivak, 1945.

The Return of the Continental Op. New York: Spivak, 1945.

Hammett Homicides, edited by Ellery Queen. New York: Spivak, 1945.

Dead Ye/low Women, edited by Queen. New York: Spivak, 1947.

Nightmare Town, edited by Queen. New York: Spivak, 1948.

The Creeping Siamese, edited by Queen. New York: Spivak, 1950.

Woman in the Dark, edited by Queen. New York: Spivak, 1951.

A Man Named Thin, edited by Queen. New York: Ferman, 1962.

The Big Knockover, edited by Lillian Hellman. New York: Random House, 1966. Reprinted as The Dashiell Hammett Story Omnibus. London: Cassell, 1966.

The Continental Op, edited by Steven Marcus. New York: Random House, 1974.

Woman in the Darh. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Nightmare Town, edited by Kirby McCauley, Martin H. Greenberg, and Ed Gorman. New York: Knopf, 1999.

Collection: Complete Novels. New York: Library of America, 1999.

OTHER: Creeps by Night, edited by Hammett. New York: Day, 1931; London: Gollancz, 1932.

After the Thin Man, in New Black Mask 5 and 6, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Richard Layman. San Diego, New York & London: Harvest, 1986.

MOTION PICTURES: City Streets, original story by Hammett, Paramount, 1931.

Mister Dynamite, original story by Hammett, Universal, 1935.

After the Thin Man, original story by Hammett, M-G-M, 1936.

Another Thin Man, original story by Hammett, M-G-M, 1939.

Watch on the Rhine, screenplay by Hammett, Warner Bros., 1943.

Layman, Richard. Dashiell Hammett: A Descriptive Bibliography. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1979. Lists primary and selected secondary works.


Layman, Richard. Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett. New York: Har-court Brace Jovanovich, 1981. The first full biography of Hammett; stubbornly adheres to the facts of Hammett’s life; all his published fiction is described.

Johnson, Diane. Dashiell Hammett: A Life. New York: Random House, 1983. The authorized biography, drawing on family materials unavailable to other biographers; a novelistic approach to Hammett’s life.

Nolan, William F. Hammett: A Life at the Edge. New York: Morrow, 1983. Biographical interpretation by the mystery writer and popular biographer who wrote the first book-length study of Hammett’s life and career.

Symons, Julian. Dashiell Hammett. San Diego & New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985. A heavily illustrated introductory work.

Mellen, Joan. Hellman and Hammett: The Legendary Passion of Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. The fullest account of the relationship between Hammett and Hellman. Supersedes previous biographies in the account of Hammett’s life after 1931, though the Hammett family disputes Mellen’s assertion that Mary Jane Hammett was not the daughter of Dashiell Hammett.


Bazelon, David T. “Dashiell Hammett’s Private Eye,” in The Scene before You: A New Approach to American Culture, edited by Chandler Brossard. New York & Toronto: Rinehart, 1955, pp. 180-190. Early critical essay arguing that Hammett is best at writing formula fiction in which motivation is not carefully analyzed.

Bentley, Christopher. “Radical Anger: Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest,” in American Crime Fiction: Studies in the Genre, edited by Brian Docherty. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988, pp. 54-70. A Marxist reading of Hammett’s first novel.

Chandler, Raymond. “The Simple Art of Murder,” Atlantic Monthly (December 1944): 53-59. Pioneering essay in which Hammett’s writing is discussed in terms of tradition of American crime fiction.

Day, Gary. “Investigating the Investigator: Hammett’s Continental Op,” in American Crime Fiction: Studies in the Genre, edited by Brian Docherty. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988, pp. 39-53. A discussion of the narrative strategies of Hammett employed in the characterization of the unnamed detective hero of his first two novels and most of his short stories.

Dooley Dennis. Dashiell Hammett. New York: Ungar, 1985. A general introduction to Hammett’s works that discusses “only works that are readily available to the average reader.” Half the book is given over to the short fiction.

Edenbaum, Robert I. “The Poetics of the Private-Eye: The Novels of Dashiell Hammett,” in Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties, edited by David Madden. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968, pp. 80-103. Describes the code of toughness in Hammett’s novels and points out that the mask of stoicism worn by Hammett’s heroes is never lifted to show the reader their vulnerability.

Fechheimer, David, ed. Special issue of City of San Francisco magazine, 4 November 1975. Includes valuable resources for Hammett study, including the only published interview with Jose Hammett.

Gores, Joe. Hammett: A Novel. New York: Putnam, 1975.

Gregory, Sinda. Private Investigations: The Novels of Dashiell Hammett. Carbon-dale & Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985. Critical and interpretive study of Hammett’s fiction.

Hagemann, E. R. A Comprehensive Index to Black Mask, 1920-1951. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1982. A reliable inventory of all the stories in Black Mask, useful for understanding the publishing context of Hammett’s work.

Hamilton, Cynthia S. Western and HardBoiled Detective Fiction in America: From High Noon to Midnight. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1987. An analysis of the works of Hammett, Zane Grey, Frederick Faust, and Raymond Chandler, based on “the dynamics of one generic tradition: the American adventure formula.”

Herron, Don. Dashiell Hammett Tour, Herron’s Literary Walks in San Francisco, no. 1. San Francisco: Dawn Herron Press, 1982. Revised as The Dashiell Hammett Tour. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1991.

Layman, Richard. “Dashiell Hammett,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography: Documentary Series, volume 6: Hardboiled Writers, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Layman. Detroit: Gale Research, 1989. A documentary record of Hammett’s life and career, including much previously uncollected material.

Macdonald, Ross. “Homage to Dashiell Hammett,” in Self-Portrait: Ceaselessly in the Past. Santa Barbara, Cal.: Capra, 1981, pp. 109-112. Essay by the crime writer describing Hammett’s literary influence.

Malin, Irving. “Focus on ’The Maltese Falcon’: The Metaphysical Falcon,” in Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties, edited by David Madden. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968, pp. 104-109. Argues that The Maltese Falcon describes a mysterious world in which the falcon itself is the deity.

Margolies, Edward. “Dashiell Hammett: Success as Failure,” in his Which Way Did He Go?: The Private Eye in Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, and Ross Macdonald. New York & London: Holmes & Meier, 1982, pp. 17-32. A popularculturist approach to Hammett’s works as genre fiction.

Marling, William. Dashiell Hammett. New York: Twayne, 1983. Biographical and critical study in the standard format of the Twayne United States Authors series.

Metress, Christopher, ed., The Critical Response to Dashiell Hammett. West-port, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. Reprints excerpts from key works of criticism and includes a checklist of works about Hammett.

Nolan, William F. Dashiell Hammett: A Casebook. Santa Barbara: McNally & Loftin, 1969. Difficult-to-find first book about Hammett; the basis for Nolan’s later biography.

Raubicheck, Walter. “Stirring It Up: Dashiell Hammett and the Tradition of the Detective Story,” Armchair Detective, 20 (Winter 1987): 20-25. Examination of the innovations Hammett introduced to the detective story through irony and characterization.

Shulman, Robert. “Dashiell Hammett’s Social Vision,” Centennial Review, 29 (Fall 1985): 400-419. An attempt to reconcile the social views of Red Harvest, The Maltese Falcon, and The Glass Key with Hammett’s later political views.

Thompson, George J. “The Problem of Moral Vision in Dashiell Hammett’s Detective Novels,” Armchair Detective, 6 (May 1973): 153-156; 6 (August 1973): 213-225; 7 (November 1973): 32-40; 7 (May 1974): 178-192; 7 (August 1974): 270-280; 8 (November 1974): 27-35; 8 (February 1975): 124-130. Long essay discussing Hammett’s fiction in terms of the value system it advocates.

Wolfe, Peter. Beams Falling: The Art of Dashiell Hammett. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1980. Critical discussion of Hammett’s fiction.


The most important collection of Dashiell Hammett’s papers is at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin. The Lillian Hellman archive includes letters from Hammett to Hellman and copies of her plays with his annotations. The Knopf archive there includes editorial correspondence and internal memos related to Hammett’s novels.


There are several websites devoted to Hammett and his works. In general, students should be wary of information provided without an indication of sources and without attribution. There is as much misinformation available on the Internet as there is information. Use websites with extreme caution.

A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection: <http://members.aol.com/mg4273/classics.htm> An educational site containing reading lists and essays on great mysteries, mainly of the pre-1960 era. It is designed and written by Michael E. Grost, a mystery fan who lives near Detroit, Michigan. It includes much information about Hammett’s short stories, in particular.

The Hammett Mailing List: <http://www.cigarsmokers.com/hammett/hammettmain.html> Hammett discussion list. Includes several links.

The Continental Op: <http://nanaimo.ark.com/~wilted/> An unattributed site dedicated to discussion of the Continental Op.

Continental Detective Agency. Full, unattributed site from England. Includes links.