Dashiell Hammett: The man of mystery

Listen to this article

“Dashiell Hammett: Man of Mystery,” Sally Cline, 272 pages, Arcade Publishing, 2016 (Review by Bill Hughes)

His family roots ran deep in the “Old Line State.” Dashiell Hammett, aka Samuel “Dash” Dashiell Hammett, was born on a tobacco farm in 1894, in Saint Mary’s County, Maryland. Before Hammett died in 1961, in New York City, at age 66, he had become one of America’s most famous detective/mystery novelists.

When Hammett was seven years old, his family moved to 212 North Stricker Street, in Southwest Baltimore. He even attended Poly H.S. for one semester. Only “six blocks away” from him on Hollins Street resided the “Bard of Baltimore,” the incomparable, H.L. Mencken. Their literary paths would soon cross as Hammett began to find his life’s calling.

Hammett’s mom, Annie Bond, was a nurse, but “sickly.” His “bad-tempered father,” Richard, was a loser. He couldn’t hold a job and was also a “drinker and a womanizer.” His father was related to the prominent Briscoe Clan of Southern Maryland. Father and son were “not friends,” wrote author Sally Cline.

Whose off-the-wall conduct do you think Hammett would emulate as he matured into adulthood? Try — his father’s.

In Dashiell Hammett: Man of Mystery, Cline brilliantly captures the life and times of this often private, enigmatic and talented man. By all accounts, he took pulp fiction yarns — about hard-boiled private eyes, such as his popular creation, Sam Spade, in The Maltese Falcon — to new, and higher, literary heights. Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle would be proud.

Man of MysteryWhen I was growing up in the post-WWII era, I vividly recall enjoying the Spade character in the movie version of The Maltese Falcon. He was portrayed by the splendid actor, Humphrey Bogart. The film is a classic in that genre. The book went on to become the “best known American crime novel of all time.” Also in the film were some of the iconic actors of that black/white film era: Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Ward Bond.

The Maltese Falcon, according to Cline, included some of Hammett’s darker, philosophical views on life. She wrote: “Its primary theme is how appearance belies reality, nothing is ever as it seems, how order and meaning are mere human fabrications, and blind chance is the only thing on which we can count.”

The 1941 movie, directed by the legendary John Huston, helped to make the book “a massive best seller.” Whether or not Hammett appreciated the fact that his “most famous and meaningful passage” about life was left out of the film, isn’t known.

Getting back to Hammett’s formative years. Like his dad, he had a hard time holding onto a job until age 21. Then, in 1915, he went to work for the Pinkerton Detective Agency in Baltimore. One of his assignments was in Butte, Montana, to spy on the Wobblies, a radical union group. That chore turned his stomach. He left the agency in 1918, to join the U.S. Army at Fort Meade, MD.

Hammett served stateside, during WWI, and rose to the rank of sergeant. In the process, however, he caught the “Spanish Flu,” which led to tuberculosis. While recuperating out in Tacoma, WA, he met his future wife, an attractive VA nurse, Josephine “Josie” Dolan. In July of 1921, they were married. Before long, they added two lovely daughters, Mary Jane and Josephine, to their household. To say that their relationship was complicated, is an understatement.

While living in San Francisco, CA, in 1922, with his family, Hammett’s literary career began to flourish. Mencken published his story, “The Parthian Shot,” in his magazine The Smart Set. Four more short fiction pieces soon followed.

When, in 1923, Mencken took over the “Black Mask” magazine that featured pulp fiction, it published Hammett’s first pulp fiction novel, “Arson Plus.” The rest, as they say, is history. “Five groundbreaking novels, one novella, and more than sixty short stories” were his lifetime output, Cline tells us. Hammett concluded his fiction output with “The Thin Man,” in 1934. Then, “writer’s block for twenty-seven years” intervened!

In 1931, in Hollywood, Lillian “Lilly” Hellman entered his life. She was then 25 years old, short, plain-looking, high energy, Jewish, with red-hair, and a wannabe playwright. Hammett was then a 6 ft.-plus, suave, 36 years old, a successful novelist and a lapsed Catholic. They were both married. They also both loved sex, booze, life in the fast lane and literature. The connection was made. Their often rocky relationship was to last for 30 more years until Hammett’s death.

When WWII started, Hammett, age 48, joined the U.S. Army in September, 1942, despite his serious medical problems. He spent two of the next three years assigned to the Aleutian Islands and loved every minute of it. He again made the rank of sergeant.


During Hammett’s Hollywood days in the 1930s, he had been busy doing screenwriting. As “The Great Depression” sunk in, he was also a political “Lefty.” Many of the unions and groups, including the Communist Party that Hammett joined, supported the revolution in the Soviet Union and opposed the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany. During WWII, the Soviet Union was America’s ally. Soon after it ended, however, the “Cold War” began, along with the rise of McCarthyism. Red-baiting then became fashionable on Capitol Hill.

Cutting to the chase, Hammett was targeted by the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover and right-wind politicos in Washington, D.C. He once told Hellman: “I don’t let cops or judges tell me what democracy is.”

His anti-fascist beliefs, and refusal to “name names,” led in 1951, to a six-month’s confinement in a federal slammer for “criminal contempt of court.”

By then, Hammett was a broken man — physically and financially — and also blacklisted in the film industry. He owed hundred of thousands in back taxes. Despite making over one million dollars from his books and screenplay work, he died living off his VA disability pension and the charity of Hellman.

In death, however, Hammett, a veteran of both WWI and WWII, scored a telling blow against the Right Wing creeps that had so viciously hounded him in life. He is buried in sacred ground among America’s most honored dead: Arlington National Cemetery!

I’m giving Sally Cline five out of five stars for her first-rate, well-researched and compelling biography on Dashiell Hammett. It is a gem of a book, very entertaining, and it belongs in the library of all lovers of American literature.