Dashiell Hammett lived the life of a hard-boiled detective before he created one of his own. His Continental Op character was one of the most popular detectives of the 1920s pulp fiction era. Hammett’s work with the Op and other characters appeared alongside such notable writers and characters as Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, among scores of others.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, or even many of the people who came after, Hammett has the distinction of having been a private detective, which lends his stories even more gravitas than his stripped down fiction and inclusion of grime and grit do alone. The Continental Op, the character he spent the most time writing about, is loosely based on his own experiences working for the Pinkerton Agency before and after the First World War. The Op is never named, nor are any of the agents he interacts with in his dealings with the Continental Detective Agency. His most famous outing, the 1929 novel Red Harvest, was initially serialized in Black Mask, the quintessential pulp publication for hard-boiled detective fiction. In fact, Red Harvest was so influential Time magazine included it among its 2010 list of the all-time best 100 novels in the English language.
The Continental Op isn’t Hammett’s only creation, and not even close to his most famous character. For that you have to look to Sam Spade. Spade is the protagonist of The Maltese Falcon, and when that story made the transition from page to screen, he was played to great acclaim by Humphrey Bogart1. Spade’s quest to uncover the plot behind his partner’s murder and the mysterious eponymous statue leads to so many betrayals and double-crosses that it’s sort of bewildering. The statue itself is mostly a McGuffin, as its role in the story is merely catalyzing and not terribly material. The film was popular, and so was the novel. The Maltese Falcon has also been included in a list of all-time best 100 novels in the English language, this time by the Modern Library Assocation.
The cold-eyed, hardened detective that Hammett wrote so much about, whether as the Op or Spade, is upended by the last of his famous creations, Nick and Nora Charles, the stars of Hammett’s final novel, The Thin Man. The Charles’ are wealthy alcoholics who want nothing other than to enjoy life while getting soused. Since the stories are all set during Prohibition, it makes their drunken behavior fairly amusing. The relationship appears to be loosely based on Hammett’s own relationship with Lillian Hellman. While Nick Charles does have some of the detachment endemic to Spade and the Op, before the start of the novel he managed to get out of the detective business in time to save some of his empathy. The plot of the novel follows Nick being reluctantly pulled back into a murder investigation while his witty wife assists and sometimes gets in the way. The Thin Man appears on film2, along with several sequels, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, and, in another nod to the quality of Hammett’s skills, was nominated for an Academy Award for best picture, and has been routinely included in the American Film Institute’s lists of great films.
Incidentally, my first experience with Hammett’s work was The Thin Man series of films, as my parents are (pretty much have always been) aficionados of the Turner Classic Movies channel. The Thin Man and its sequels are frequently shown on the channel, and, while as a young kid I wasn’t old enough to really understand everything that was going on, the smarmy back-and-forth dialogue was certainly engaging. After I reached adulthood, I discovered the Continental Op through a library book sale, and after that I began to read Hammett in earnest.
Hammett pretty much stopped writing in the mid-1930s and became a radical left-wing political activist, officially joining the Communist Party where he was a member up until the Second World War. Despite suffering from tuberculosis, he managed to enlist and serve as a newspaper reporter in the Army. After the war he went back to political advocacy and was eventually investigated and then blacklisted during the McCarthyism craze of the 1950s.
While he may not have been the first3 to write a hard-boiled detective, Dashiell Hammett is perhaps the most influential mystery writer in American history. Yes, that’s a bold claim, especially as Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” is commonly considered the foundational work of detective fiction written in English. While Poe did set the gears in motion, leading directly to mystery as a genre in its own right (a feat celebrated by the eponymous Edgars, the yearly award for best mystery story) the popular image of a detective rests almost entirely upon the work of Hammett. Other writers who came after him, like Raymond Chandler, ensured that hard-boiled detectives weren’t a passing fad, but Chandler himself says that it was Hammett that started him on his authorial career.
1 Bogart also played Chandler’s Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep.
2 The film is rather expensive to purchase digitally now, but luckily there’s a radioplay version available starring Powell and Loy.
3 That would be Carroll John Daly, who, at the time, was even more popular than Hammett.