Hammett, Dashiell 1894-1961
(Full name Samuel Dashiell Hammett) American novelist and short story writer.
A celebrated author of American crime fiction, Hammett is widely considered the originator of the "hard-boiled" detective story. Writing in a terse prose style frequently compared to that of Ernest Hemingway, Hammett featured callous, cynical private detectives who became the archetype for scores of similar protagonists in American television, popular literature, and film. The style Hammett pioneered beginning in the early 1920s was a radical departure from that of the traditional English mystery story, replacing genteel sleuths such as Sherlock Holmes with workmanlike detectives who operate in the violent and seedy world of urban crime. Generally recognized as an important contribution to American literature—a status rarely achieved by the works of popular genre writers—Hammett's best fiction features stylized prose, intricate plotting, and an original type of hero who confronts the lawless nature of American society in the 1920s and 1930s.
Hammett was born in St. Mary's County, Maryland, and attended school in Baltimore until the age of thirteen. Beginning in 1915, he was employed by the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, but his career as a private detective was interrupted by service in World War I. Hammett never saw action in Europe during the war but contracted tuberculosis while stationed in the United States. He returned to the Pinkerton Agency in 1919, but additional hospitalization for the disease ensued, and he eventually left the detective firm around 1921 to concentrate on writing. Success as a fiction writer made Hammett a hot property for Hollywood producers in the 1930s; many of his novels were adapted into films, and he continued to work on screenplays when his prolific output of fiction diminished after 1934. In the latter part of the 1930s, Hammett became increasingly involved with leftist causes, and it is believed by some scholars that he became a member of the Communist Party of the United States at that time. Following service in World War II, Hammett's political activities drew the attention of anti-communist politicians; he served a six month sentence for refusing to divulge information about suspected revolutionaries, and after he was released from prison all royalties from his writings were seized for back taxes. The final years of his life were spent in poverty and ill health. He lived often with friends, including the playwright Lillian Hellman, his longtime companion, until his death from lung cancer in 1961.>
The majority of Hammett's short stories feature the nameless Continental Op, a detective for the Continental Detective Agency. The Op stories date from early in Hammett's writing career and continued to be written until he made the transition to long fiction several years later—though the character of the Op was also featured in Hammett's first two novels. Most of the Continental Op stories first appeared in Black Mask, a pulp fiction periodical that fostered the growth of hard-boiled detective fiction. From 1923 to 1927, over thirty of Hammett's stories appeared in Black Mask, fitting well with the magazine's emphasis on action-oriented plots and realistic detail. Hammett's innovations began with the character of the Op, a slightly overweight detective who is most often depicted as middle-aged and prone to the ailments and routines of many men in mid-life. The character was initially based on Hammett's boss at the Pinkerton Agency, and the author likewise made use of his own detective experience to create the stories. As a result, violent underworld criminals populate his fiction. The story "The Whosis Kid," for example, features a team of greedy jewel thieves who turn against one another in a bloody free-for-all that results in four murders. The Op, in turn, does not shy away from violence, and killing foes is frequently a part of his job. He will also break the law when it stands in the way of his goals, but his actions are guided by a personal code of conduct that he does not violate. Other characters are not so virtuous; "$106,000 Blood Money" reveals one of the Op's fellow detectives in league with criminals, and Hammett frequently depicts high society figures associating with wrongdoers. The greatest threat to the Op's code comes from women. A favorite Hammett situation involves a seductive female criminal who attempts to use her allure to elude the detective or entice him to join her side. The Op often confesses his attraction for these women, but his response to Princess Zhukovski in "The Gutting of Couffignal" is a typical rebuff: "You think I'm a man and you're a woman. That's wrong. I'm a man-hunter and you're something that's been running in front of me. There's nothing human about it." Setting the precedent for other hard-boiled detectives, the Op is far removed from emotion of all kinds. His cool demeanor is portrayed in large part through the first-person narration employed in all of the stories. The Op relays events in an objective tone, reporting only what he sees and hears, placing emphasis on surface details rather than underlying feelings. This approach, along with the short declarative sentences used in the stories, have led to the frequent comparisons between Hammett and Hemingway. The unemotional aspects of Hammett's writing are offset, some critics note, by more sensitive characteristics, such as the detective's stubbornly defended code of honor. The Op's tenacious pursuit of solutions to crimes has also been viewed as the behavior of a romantic hero and is often compared to a knight's quest for the Holy Grail in medieval literature.
While Hammett's novels such as The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key are recognized as notable literary accomplishments, his short fiction has received a more moderate reaction. Critics generally concede that Hammett surpassed other crime fiction writers of his time; as Edward Margolies writes in Which Way Did He Go?, Hammett "wrote better than most, his narratives were more inventive, and he possessed a sense of humor." Noting weaknesses in his stories, some commentators have charged that Hammett's characterization in these works often relies on clichés—racial, sexual, and otherwise—resulting in one-dimensional figures, especially among the criminals that face the Continental Op. Other critics have objected to the extreme violence and implausible plots of the stories. Leonard Michaels, writing in the New York Times Book Review, sounded this complaint, declaring that events in the short works "tend to be absurd—unintentionally absurd." Hammett's intentions have become a frequent concern with contemporary reviewers. Several critics have noted that the Op frequently reaches conclusions that are hard to believe, but they offer different reasons for this. Some accuse Hammett of flawed story writing, of creating improbable resolutions without laying the necessary groundwork within the narrative. Others, such as Steven Marcus, declare that Hammett intentionally created the Op's improbable deductions. In this analysis, Hammett intended the Op to be a character who constructs his own fictions within the story much as an author creates a fictitious narrative. In this fashion, some critics reason, Hammett used his work to comment on and draw attention to the storytelling process, an approach that would later become important to many experimental writers, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. Despite differing interpretations, the bulk of critical commentary is largely agreed on two points regarding the author's short fiction: as Hammett's earliest work, it is the stories that first illustrated his important innovations in the crime fiction genre, and served as a training ground where Hammett worked out many of the techniques that he later refined in his novels.