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Samuel Dashiell Hammett ( ; May 27, 1894 – January 10, 1961) was an Americanmarker author of hard-boiled detective novels and short stories. Among the enduring characters he created are Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon), Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man), the newspaper comic strip Secret Agent X-9 and the Continental Op (Red Harvest and The Dain Curse). In addition to the significant influence his novels and stories had on film, Hammett "is now widely regarded as one of the finest mystery writers of all time" and was called, in his obituary in The New York Times, "the dean of the... 'hard-boiled' school of detective fiction".

Early life

Hammett was born on a farm called "Hopewell and Aim" off Great Mills Road, St. Mary's County, in southern Marylandmarker, United Statesmarker. His parents were Richard Thomas Hammett and Anne Bond Dashiell. (The Dashiells are an old Maryland family, the name being an Anglicization of the French De Chiel) He grew up in Philadelphiamarker and Baltimoremarker. "Sam", as he was known before he began writing, left school when he was 13 years old and held several jobs before working for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency (this later became his influence for most his books ). He served as an operative for the Pinkerton Agency from 1915 to 1921, with time off to serve in World War I. However, the agency's role in union strike-breaking eventually disillusioned him.

During World War I, Hammett enlisted in the United States Army and served in the Motor Ambulance Corps. However, he became ill with the Spanish flu and later contracted tuberculosis. He spent the war as a patient in Cushman Hospital, Tacoma, Washingtonmarker. While hospitalized he met and married a nurse, Josephine Dolan, and had two daughters, Mary Jane (1921-10-15) and Josephine (1926). Shortly after the birth of their second child, Health Services nurses informed Josephine that due to Hammett's tuberculosis, she and the children should not live with him. So they rented a place in San Franciscomarker. Hammett would visit on weekends, but the marriage soon fell apart. Hammett still supported his wife and daughters financially with the income he made from his writing.

Hammett turned to drinking, advertising, and, eventually, writing. His work at the detective agency provided him the inspiration for his writings.

Early work

The detective who goes by the name "The Continental Op" served as the hero in many of Hammett's early short stories, largely following a simple investigative formula. His writing was composed largely of minimalist sentences and a steady accumulation of evidence. These stories culminated in the two Continental Op novels, Red Harvest and The Dain Curse. In Red Harvest, Hammett achieved a "poetry of violence" as the Op took a hand in the purging of mob bosses from a corrupt mining town. The Dain Curse was a more straightforward murder mystery as everyone close to a young woman met their demise, leading to the twisted mind of the murderer.

Later novels

As Hammett's literary style matured, he relied less and less on the super-criminal and turned more to the kind of realistic, hardboiled fiction seen in The Maltese Falcon or The Thin Man. In The Simple Art of Murder, Hammett's successor in the field, Raymond Chandler, summarized Hammett's accomplishments:
Hammett was the ace performer...
He is said to have lacked heart; yet the story he himself thought the most of [''[[The Glass Key]]''] is the record of a man's devotion to a friend.
He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all.
He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.

Later years

From 1929 to 1930 Dashiell was romantically involved with Nell Martin, an author of short stories and several novels. He dedicated The Glass Key to her, and in turn, she dedicated her novel Lovers Should Marry to Hammett.

In 1931, Hammett embarked on a 30-year affair with playwright Lillian Hellman. This relationship was portrayed in the film Julia, in which Hammett was portrayed by Jason Robards and Hellman by Jane Fonda, in Oscar winning and nominated performances respectively.

He wrote his final novel in 1934, and devoted much of the rest of his life to left-wing activism. He was a strong anti-fascist throughout the 1930s and in 1937 he joined the American Communist Party. As a member of the League of American Writers, he served on its Keep America Out of War Committee in January 1940 during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact.

Service in World War II

In 1942, after Pearl Harbormarker, Hammett enlisted in the United States Army. Though he was a disabled veteran of World War I, and a victim of tuberculosis, he pulled strings in order to be admitted to the service. He spent most of World War II as an Army sergeant in the Aleutian Islandsmarker, where he edited an Army newspaper. He came out of the war suffering from emphysema. As a corporal in 1943, he co-authored The Battle of the Aleutians with Cpl. Robert Colodny under the direction of Infantry Intelligence Officer Major Henry W. Hall.

Post-war political activity

After the war, Hammett returned to political activism, "but he played that role with less fervor than before." He was elected President of the Civil Rights Congress of New York on 5 June 1946 at a meeting held at the Hotel Diplomat in New York Citymarker, and "devoted the largest portion of his working time to CRC activities." In 1946, a bail fund was created by the CRC "to be used at the discretion of three trustees to gain the release of defendants arrested for political reasons." Those three trustees were Hammett, who was chairman, Robert W. Dunn, and Frederick Vanderbilt Field, "millionaire Communist supporter." On 3 April 1947, the CRC was designated a Communist front group on the Attorney General's List of Subversive Organizations, as directed by U.S. President Harry S. Truman’s Executive Order 9835.

Imprisonment and the blacklist

The CRC's bail fund gained national attention on 4 November 1949, when bail in the amount of "$260,000 in negotiable government bonds" was posted "to free eleven men appealing their convictions under the Smith Act for criminal conspiracy to teach and advocate the overthrow of the United States government by force and violence." On 2 July 1951, their appeals exhausted, four of the convicted men fled rather than surrender themselves to Federal agentsmarker and begin serving their sentences. At that time, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York issued subpoenas to the trustees of the CRC bail fund in an attempt to learn the whereabouts of the fugitives. Hammett testified on 9 July 1951 in front of United States District Court Judge Sylvester Ryan, facing questioning by Irving Saypol, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, described by Time as "the nation's number one legal hunter of top Communists". During the hearing Hammett refused to provide the information the government wanted, specifically, the list of contributors to the bail fund, "people who might be sympathetic enough to harbor the fugitives." Instead, on every question regarding the CRC or the bail fund, Hammett took the Fifth Amendment, refusing to even identify his signature or initials on CRC documents the government had subpoenaed. As soon as his testimony concluded, Hammett was immediately found guilty of contempt of court.

During the 1950s he was investigated by Congress (see McCarthyism), and testified on March 26, 1953 before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Although he testified to his own activities, he refused to cooperate with the committee and was blacklisted.


On January 10, 1961, Hammett died in New York Citymarker's Lenox Hill Hospitalmarker, of lung cancer, diagnosed just two months before. As a veteran of two World Wars, he was buried at Arlington National Cemeterymarker.

In Literature

Fellow crime writer and former San Francisco detective Joe Gores wrote a novel in 1975 entitled Hammett, which imagines Hammett himself being drawn back to the work of a private eye in order to honor a debt with a mentor and friend. The novel was adapted into a film, Hammett (1982), which was produced by Francis Ford Coppola and directed by Wim Wenders. In the film, Frederic Forrest plays Hammett. Frederic Forrest also plays Hammett in the TV film, Citizen Cohn (1992).

Gores also recently wrote Spade & Archer (2009), a prequel to The Maltese Falcon. The novel investigates in richer detail the back stories of Sam Spade, his partner Miles Archer and other memorable characters from the original story. Gores was able to secure permission from Jo Marshall, Hammett's daughter, and Julie Rivett, Marshall's daughter and Hammett's granddaughter, to write the book. Although Marshall first refused, the Hammett family later changed their mind because they felt that Gores was the right person to tell the story, primarily because he was a crime writer and a former San Francisco private investigator, just like Hammett. According to Rivett, "[Gores] walked the walk as well as he talked the talk. He knows as well as anyone where those characters came from.".



Short fiction

  • Creeps by Night; Chills and Thrills (Anthology edited by Hammett, 1931)
  • The Big Knockover (a collection of short stories, which includes The Gutting of Couffignal)
  • A Man Called Spade (five short stories, only three Sam Spade stories, with "Meet Sam Spade", an introduction by Ellery Queen) (published as Dell mapback #90 and #411)
  • Nightmare Town (a collection of four short stories) (published with an introduction titled "A Letter from Ellery Queen" as Dell mapback #379)
  • Blood Money (two novellas) (published as Dell mapback #53 and #486)

Continental Op stories

  • The Continental Op (a collection of four short stories with "Meet the Continental Op", an introduction by Ellery Queen) (published as Dell mapback #129
  • The Return of the Continental Op (a collection of five short stories with "The Return of the Continental Op", an introduction by Ellery Queen) (published as Dell mapback #154)
  • Dead Yellow Women (four Continental Op stories, two other stories, and an introduction titled "A Letter from Ellery Queen") (published as Dell mapback #308)
  • Hammett Homicides (four Continental Op stories, two other stories, and an introduction titled "A Letter from Ellery Queen") (published as Dell mapback #223)
  • The Creeping Siamese (three Continental Op stories, three other stories and an introduction titled "A Letter from Ellery Queen") (published as Dell mapback #538)

Published as

  • Complete Novels (Steven Marcus, ed.) (Library of America, 1999) ISBN 978-1-88301167-3.
  • Crime Stories and Other Writings (Steven Marcus, ed.) (Library of America, 2001) ISBN 978-1-93108200-6.


See also


  1. Thomas Heise, "'Going blood-simple like the natives': Contagious Urban Spaces and Modern Power in Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest", Modern Fiction Studies 51, no. 3 (Fall 2005) 506
  2. Layman, Richard with Rivett, Julie M. (2001). Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett 1921-1960. Retrieved on 2009-06-02 from
  3. FAQ at the CPUSA site
  4. Franklin Folsom, Days of Anger, Days of Hope, University Press of Colorado, 1994, ISBN 0870813323
  5. Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett, pp. 219-223
  6. Kara Platoni, Stanford Magazine, "Sleuth or Dare: How Joe Gores recreated Sam Spade",]


  • Hammett, Jo, A Daughter Remembers, 2001, Carroll and Graf Publishers.

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