Studying the Masters – Part 11 – Dashiell Hammett

This post is the eleventh in a series that I’ve been writing about the individuals that I view as the masters in my genre of choice, crime/detective fiction. I am a firm believer that you become better in whatever field you pursue by following those that excelled and paved the way before you.

hammettSamuel Dashiell Hammett, an American author, wrote hard-boiled detective novels and short stories. He was also a screenwriter, and political activist.

He is best known for the characters Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon) and Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man). Many regard him as the best mystery writers of all time.

Hammett worked for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency for seven years with a break during which he served in World War I.

Like many writers of his time, Hammett became an alcoholic before working full-time as a writer inspired by his work with the detective agency. He was first published in a magazine in 1922.

Raymond Chandler (see Part 4 of this series) is often considered to be Hammett’s heir apparent. He spoke of his mentor in the following quote:

“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”

Hammett was also known as a left-wing activist and a member of the Communist Party USA. Despite this in early 1942, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hammett enlisted in the United States Army. He served as a sergeant in the Aleutian Islands, where he edited an Army newspaper.

After the war, Hammett’s activism led to him serving time in prison and being blacklisted as a result of McCarthyism.

In the 1950s Hammett became reclusive until his death in 1961.

Hammett wrote four novels during the period of 1929-34. He then wrote related screenplays from 1936-43. His short fiction spanned nearly 40 years from 1922-61.

He was truly an architect for the hard-boiled detective fiction genre.

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