Before Dashiell Hammett, American detective fiction was in the Sherlock Holmes tradition: gentleman-sleuths, elegant logic, criminals gone barely or rarely bad. Hammett didn't so much break this mould as snub it. His heroes are blue-collar wise-guys in a world gone slick and mean. They work hard, deduce little and offer less:
"Who killed Thursby?"
Spade said, "I don't know."
..."Perhaps you don't, but you certainly could make an excellent guess."
"Maybe, but I wouldn't."
The District Attorney raised his eyebrows.
"I wouldn't," Spade repeated. He was serene. "My guess might be excellent, or it might be crummy, but Mrs. Spade didn't raise any children dippy enough to make guesses in front of a district attorney, an assistant district attorney, and a stenographer."
"Why shouldn't you, if you've nothing to conceal?"
"Everybody," Spade responded mildly, "has something to conceal."
"And you have --?"
"My guesses, for one thing."
That's The Maltese Falcon, published in 1930, near the end of a ten-year burst of writing that would make Hammett the rich and famous grand master of crime noir at the age of thirty-nine. He had been a Pinkerton detective, where he supposedly learned to walk the walk and talk the no-talk of guys like Sam Spade. America couldn't get hard-boiled enough in the 1930s, and Hammett had orders for as many novels and screenplays as he could manage.
For the next twenty-seven years, and for reasons hard to explain, he managed none. Some biographers point to Hammett's taste for Scotch and high living, as if he partied his ability away. Some take the reverse view, that the drinking continued because the writing didn't, despite his efforts.
The one on-and-off but enduring relationship in Hammett's life was that with Lillian Hellman. She offers no theories, but her memoirs provide glimpses of a remarkable man, one who seemed to gradually withdraw from language, if not life.
She tells of an evening in 1939 spent drinking with Hammett and a crowd that included Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway is talking loudly of all that he did -- and that those present did not do -- in the Spanish Civil War. He is also attempting to bend a spoon by squeezing it between his bicep and lower arm. Both actions leave Hammett with his head in his hands, staring at the tablecloth:
Ernest said, "What's the matter with you, Hammett?"
"I don't always like lectures."
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The spoon crumpled and Ernest threw it down with a happy grin.
He turned to Hammett, "All right, kid, let's see you do that."
Kid looked up, stared at Ernest, returned his head to his hands, and I knew there was going to be trouble.... [Hammett] turned to me, "Come on. Let's go."
He half rose. Ernest's hand shot out and held him down. Ernest was grinning. "No. Let's see you do the spoon trick first."
Dash stared at Ernest's hand, settled in his chair again, and put his head back in his hands....
Ernest said, very sharply, "Let's see you bend the spoon."
Dash got up. He was drunk now and the rise was unsteady. He said, very softly, "I don't think I could bend the spoon. But when I did things like that it was for Pinkerton money. Why don't you go roll a hoop in the park?"
Hellman also tells of a talk in the early 50s, the night before the House of Un-American Activities Committee sent Hammett to prison for contempt. His unabashed socialism made him an easy target for the McCarthy-ites, but he didn't know any of the people the Committee wanted him to finger. Hellman wanted him to just say so, but Hammett planned to cite the Fifth Amendment:
I don't know why. I guess it has something to do with keeping my word.... I hate this damn kind of talk, but maybe I better tell you that if it were more than jail, if it were my life, I would give it for what I think democracy is, and I don't let cops or judges tell me what I think democracy is.
Shortly after his release from prison, Hammett told an acquaintance who was just about to go in, and who was bemoaning the injustice of it all, "It will be easier for you, Howard, and you won't catch cold, if you first take off the crown of thorns."
Hellman didn't think he knew what she did at the end, that he was dying of lung cancer. One night she found him in his room crying in pain, but refusing to take anything for it. "I sat down beside him and waited for a long time before I could say, 'Do you want to talk about it?' He said, almost with anger, 'No. My only chance is not to talk about it.'"
Dashiell Hammett died on January 10, 1961, at the age of sixty-six. Although there were no novels in those last twenty-seven years, it is hard not to hear undiminished in them the voice of Sam Spade.