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Hard-boiled detective fiction--Dashiell Hammett creator of iconic Sam Spade

Updated on October 20, 2015

We Never Sleep




Hammett's grave

Public domain from wikimedia commons
Public domain from wikimedia commons


I knew Hammett more from radio shows than from his books and short stories. Growing up in a pre-television age I listened to radio. Two of his iconic detectives were portrayed as radio programs, “Sam Spade” and “The Thin Man.” Back in the 1940’s I liked the private eyes on the radio and got to like many of them without knowing anything about who wrote them.

Sam Spade may have been the prototype for the “hard boiled detective” that I tended to take as just the private eye. Hammett created the character for his novel, now a classic; Humphrey Bogart played in The Maltese Falcon, which was made into a movie and Spade set the pattern for future fictional detectives. His characteristics taken from earlier dectectives were cold detachment, keen eye for detail and seeking of his own justice—probably brought to extreme later by Mickey Spillain’s “Mike Hammer.” However, he keeps a sense of “tarnished idealism” despite his exposure to the corrupt and tawdry side of life.

Hammett said that Spade was like most real life detectives he knew or would like to be. Quite different from the abstract solver of riddles like Sherlock Holmes.

In the 1946-1951-radio show Howard Duff played The Adventures of Sam Spade . Probably the series that I listened to. With the permission of Hammett’s estate in 2009 Joe Gores published Spade and Archer: The Prequel to Dashiell Hammett’s THE MALTESE FALCON. In 1975 Gore wrote a novel Hammett. It was a detective story with Hammett as the protagonist. It was a book I rather enjoyed at a time that I didn’t know much about Hammett.

Hammett also kept a notebook from his Pinkerton days with some interesting observations about the criminals he had run across. A quote from Raymond Chandler, which shows Chandler’s interest in Hammett, was that Hammett “…took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it in the alley…”

Hammett was born May 24, 1894 and died of cancer January 10, 1961. He is regarded as one of best mystery writers and has had a huge impact on the modern American detective story. He was born on a farm in St. May’s County, Maryland in the United States. Dashiell is an Americanization of the French name De Chiel. He grew up in Baltimore and Philadelphia. He left school when he was 13 and held several jobs before becoming a member of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency from 1915 to 1921. He took time off to serve in World War I. He disliked the agencies role as union strike breakers.

During the First World War he served as an ambulance Corpsman. He got the Spanish flu and later tuberculosis. He spent the rest of the war as a patient. He married a nurse, Josephine Dolan and had two daughters. Because of the tuberculosis they had to live separately which probably caused the marriage to fall apart. He started drinking, worked in advertising and eventually became a writer.

From 1929 to 1930 he was romantically involved with Nell Martin the author short stories and novels. In 1931 he started a 30-year affair with Lillian Hellmann. This affair was portrayed in the film Julia.

Hammett wrote his first novel in 1934 and became a left-wing activist for the rest of his life. In 1942 he enlisted in the U.S. Army despite being a disabled veteran. He came out of the war with emphysema.

He went back to political activism after the war. In 1951 he testified in front of the States District Court Judge Sylvester Ryan. Hammett refused to provide information the government wanted. He took the Fifth Amendment and was found guilty of contempt of court. In the 1950’s he was investigated by congress. He testified to his own activities but refused to cooperate with the committee and was blacklisted.

January 10, 1961 he died of lung cancer in New York’s City’s Lenox Hill Hospital. As a veteran of two world wars he was buried in at Arlington National Cemetery.


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