Unbecoming Dashiell Hammett

The aim of Nathan Ward's new biography, "The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett," is rather more modest than its title.

By Steven GoreSeptember 15, 2015

The Lost Detective by Nathan Ward. Bloomsbury. 204 pages.

THE AIM OF Nathan Ward’s new biography, The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett, is rather more modest than its title. Ward tells us that he set out to write the book he wanted to read: how Samuel Dashiell Hammett “made his famous transition from Pinkerton operative to master of the American detective story.” His book is offered as a solution to “the lasting mystery of Dashiell Hammett […] how he came to be a writer.”

However, Ward never actually presents as a mystery how Hammett became a writer. The standard account is that after illness forced Hammett to resign from the Pinkerton detective agency, he turned to writing as a source of income, and that is the account Ward presents in his preface: 

With tuberculosis he was slowly incapacitated out of conventional employment, especially the detective work he’d largely enjoyed. Still needing money for his family, but often too sick to leave his apartment, he took a stab at writing.

Which is to say, there is no mystery. It is simply an affirmation that people sometimes do extraordinary things for ordinary reasons. And, indeed, Hammett’s writing was extraordinary. Although he was not the founder of the hard-boiled school of crime fiction, in the decade from the early 1920s until the early 1930s, he reworked it in such a dominating and authoritative way that his novels, particularly The Maltese Falcon, stand today as not only the cornerstone of his subgenre of crime fiction, but also its capstone. 

In Ward’s book, we do not get the how of Hammett’s transition, just aspects of the what: what kinds of incidents, whether they were ones he experienced or only learned about from others at the Pinkerton agency; what sort of personalities, whether Hammett knew them or not; what kinds of locations, whether Hammett had been there or not, from which Hammett might have drawn plots, characters, themes, and scenes. That is to say, despite the obvious value of the book, I’m not sure Ward has found the lost detective or explained the becoming of Dashiell Hammett.

Rather, the strength of The Lost Detective is in describing the environment in which Hammett worked at the Pinkerton detective agency as what was then called an operative, including the nature of the cases the firm handled, the operatives who handled them, and the attitudes of the firm toward its cases and clients. The weakness of the book arises out of no failure on the part of its author, but out of the paucity of reliable evidence regarding the ways Hammett was tied into that environment beyond his mere presence. Despite Ward’s efforts, we know little of the specific kinds of tasks Hammett was assigned or how well he performed them.

The ultimate source of nearly all the claims that have been made about Hammett’s Pinkerton work by his family, friends, journalists, biographers, literary critics, and others was Hammett himself and, as Ward and others have shown, nearly all them are false, contradicted by Hammett himself, by independent evidence, or by evidence internal to the stories themselves. Hammett claimed, for example, that the dent in his head resulted from having been struck by a brick thrown by a rioting striker. Except he also claimed it had been thrown by someone he had been tasked to follow. He claimed he was offered $5,000 to kill labor activist Frank Little in Butte in 1917, except the evidence is that Hammett wasn’t even in Butte in 1917. Hammett claimed he discovered the gold stolen in the Sonoma case, except not only did Hammett tell different, unverified versions of his role in the case, but the gold was discovered by others, not even Pinkerton operatives. He even offered at least three different cases as his final one for Pinkerton, which makes sense because, from interview to interview, he could never settle on how long he had worked for the company.

The cumulative effect, though Ward does not draw this as a conclusion, is that The Lost Detective discredits, even devastates, Hammett as a source. One might even conclude that what there was of Hammett as a detective was lost because Hammett wanted him lost, that he could only present himself as an authority, and thereby lend the appearance of authenticity to his writing, by concealing, misrepresenting, and exaggerating his actual experiences.


The significance of The Lost Detective has less to do with what the book tells about Hammett, than what it shows. It tells the story of a Pinkerton operative who later wrote a series of crime stories that were informed by his actual detective experiences, one of which became the most influential mystery novel in hard-boiled fiction. What the book shows is a marginally competent Pinkerton operative, a consistent and unrepentant liar, a betrayer, a humiliator of women, a strikebreaker, a batterer, a tormentor of the helpless, an attempted rapist, a fraudster, and a tax evader who wrote a series of crime stories that were little informed by actual detective experience, one of which became the most influential novel in hard-boiled fiction. 

Frankly, I found all this surprising. My knowledge of Hammett had been limited to the fact that he had worked for Pinkertons, that he had founded his claims to authenticity as a writer and the realism of his novels on that work, that he perfected the hard-boiled crime novel, and that he had served time in federal prison for refusing to cooperate with courts and the Congress during the McCarthy era. It was that surprise that sent me to reread the pivotal The Maltese Falcon and review a great deal of commentary on Hammett. And I completed that reading no less surprised. 

Though Ward subtitles his book Becoming Dashiell Hammett, he, too, seems to have difficulty accepting what Hammett became, a difficulty reflected in his use of words like “version” or “story” instead of lie, “storytelling” or “embellishment” instead of lying, and “sneaking out” on his hotel bill instead of defrauding. He even ignores that by Hammett’s making his many affairs public, using the names of the women in his novels, even dedicating books to them, he was humiliating his wife and daughters from one coast to the other. Instead he minimizes Hammett’s offenses by, for example, dismissing the unrebutted allegation that Hammett battered and attempted to rape actress Elise de Viane with the sentence “whatever occurred, Hammett had scared himself enough to stop drinking for a while.” But there is no “whatever” available, because no doubt has ever been raised, even by Hammett himself. 

Beyond these euphemisms for Hammett’s actions are the more subtle words Ward employs in describing certain alleged incidents in Hammett’s life. Typical is Ward’s report of Hammett’s claim relating to his service during World War I, which he spent on the East Coast of the United States:

Sometime that summer or early fall, Hammett would remember, he was driving an ambulance filled with wounded soldiers when it flipped over … However, hazardous though these ambulance coaches were to maneuver, nine decades later no record can be found of Hammett’s traumatic accident … after the war, he almost never got behind the wheel if he could avoid it, citing this painful memory

By using the words remember at the start of the paragraph and memory at the end (my emphasis), Ward is making a claim on Hammett’s behalf that the incident, in fact, occurred — that it is the sort of thing one can have a memory about. Ward is only justified in saying that Hammett later avoided driving by claiming he was driving an ambulance that overturned. Given Hammett’s history of fabrications, Ward is not justified in drawing any conclusions regarding the veracity of Hammett’s claim. 

Unfortunately, Ward does draw conclusions regarding Hammett’s assertions, and those conclusions lend themselves to a certain circularity. In Ward’s account, in the book’s final paragraphs, Hammett and Lillian Hellman are approached at the Brown Derby by a man selling postcards and pretending to be an American Indian. He says to Hammett, “You told me you once arrested an Indian for murder” and Hammett gives him a hundred dollars. Ward then writes: 

[Hammett] had come a long way from shadowing on Baltimore street corners to this room of banquettes filled with press agents, starlets, producers, and knights of the keyboard in Beverly Hills. But it was probably nice to have a stranger remind him once in a while that he used to be a detective, and a pretty good one at that. There’s Dashiell Hammett. He once arrested an Indian for murder. That was worth a hundred bucks at least.

Ward might have revised these final lines: There’s Dashiell Hammett. He claimed he once arrested an Indian for murder. But he said a lot of things. It was worth a hundred bucks to him to have somebody parrot one back.

It might be the case that Hammett “used to be a pretty good detective,” but Ward found little evidence of it beyond comments made by two Pinkerton operatives nearly five decades after Hammett had become a world famous writer. One who worked with Hammett said he was good at following people. The other, who never worked with Hammett, said he had a reputation as one of those “fellows with particularly ability” without specifying what he had a “particular ability” to do.

Take what Hammett described as his biggest case, in which he claimed he was assigned to find a Ferris wheel stolen from a Pinkerton client. Having run my own investigative firm, I’ll put it this way: you assign your least competent investigators to find haystacks, the more competent ones to find needles, and the most competent to investigate conspiracies to hide needles in haystacks. Hammett, according his own version of the story, was assigned to find a haystack. But there is no reason to think that even this is true. The only tasks in which Hammett was engaged as a Pinkerton operative for which there seems to be support were strikebreaking and surveillance. And while individuals can develop extraordinary competence in beating heads and following people, neither requires much in the way of investigative skill. 

None of this stopped Hammett from lecturing other writers, both in reviews and in his own pieces, about their ignorance of crime and investigation, about their “blunders,” even though he shared some of that ignorance and committed similar blunders. For example, in the New York Evening Post Hammett lectured: “When a bullet from a Colt.45 [. . .] hits you, even if not in a fatal spot, it usually knocks you over.” Really? Only in a universe ungoverned by the laws of physics — that is, a fictional one — can 16 grams of lead knock over a human being. 


It is no surprise, therefore, that Hammett’s detectives rarely engage in detecting. As Ward points out with respect to The Maltese Falcon, “like the Continental Op, who prefers to stir things up and see what happens, Spade’s ‘way of learning’ is to heave a wild and unpredictable monkey-wrench into the machinery.” Which is to say that Hammett created protagonists who are detectives only in name, who tear into haystacks, not like investigators looking for needles, but like dogs after bones. It therefore should also be of no surprise that in addition to the description of Spade as “a blond Satan,” Hammett applies canine analogies to him, even to his “rubbing his face impatiently against (Effie Perine’s) hip.”

At the end of The Maltese Falcon, Hammett has Spade deliver an elaborate speech to Brigid O’Shaughnessy outlining his reasons for turning her in for killing Miles Archer. However, Spade fails to realize that within the frame of the story it is unlikely she would be convicted, perhaps not even charged: it is nothing but a hearsay case. An equally good case could be made against Casper Gutman’s hired gun, Wilmer Cook. This is because Spade does almost nothing to collect evidence against O’Shaughnessy. His reasoning, that only she could have gotten Archer to walk into the alley and approach near enough to shoot him, is nonsense: anyone with a gun or a knife or a baseball bat — or perhaps just a young woman’s sweet story about a lost puppy — could have gotten Archer to walk into that alley. Even what Spade calls “exhibits,” which he hands over to the police, fail to implicate O’Shaughnessy in the murder. Like the worthless Maltese Falcon itself, there is no reality beneath the appearance. For the wrong reason Spade turned out to be right about O’Shaughnessy, but proof is about being right for the right reason.

The question therefore is not how Hammett made the transition from Pinkerton operative to writer, but rather why so little of the real work of criminal investigation, even if Hammett only knew of it secondhand, made that transit with him. A consequence of Hammett’s persuasive misrepresentation is that his novels, which were considered realistic in contrast with the classical detective story, have come to be viewed as realistic with respect to life itself. However foundational they are, Hammett’s characters and stories — Spade, Gutman, Cairo, and hidden treasures in The Maltese Falcon or the family curses, secret temples, ghosts in The Dain Curse — are less realistic than fantastic. 

The question becomes why Hammett chose to falsify the investigative life and world of crime in just the way he did or, in Albert Camus’s words, why he, and the hard-boiled writers who followed him, chose just that particular kind of “voluntary mutilation” of that life and world. And central to this matter is why in a line of work that is fundamentally cerebral did he create Sam Spade, a character who has no inner life.

One sociological answer to Spade’s thoughtlessness is that Hammett chose to create a character for his era, at a time, typified by World War I, when reason had failed and thinking seemed impotent. In a world gone to the dogs, perhaps it would be right to create a character who is the biggest one, an unthinking creature who pursues his own ends, or whose ends are given by nature and whose thinking is purely instrumental. 

Which brings us to Ward’s inclusion of the obligatory Flitcraft story from The Maltese Falcon. In response to a beam falling next to him and feeling “like someone had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works,” Flitcraft flees from his work and family. Ward points out that because of his tuberculosis, the lid had been taken off life for Hammett and, referring to his soon-to-be permanent separation from his wife, says that through the Flitcraft story, “Hammett, between lives, is talking to himself through his creation,” that after leaving the home he shared with his wife and children, he had adjusted to his new life.

But Ward does not address the conclusion of the story: Flitcraft didn’t merely adjust to his new life. Unwittingly, he recreated his former one in a new place. Ward therefore misses some implications of the Flitcraft tale for the story he’s telling about Sam becoming Dashiell. The point of the story is the rather commonplace one that people have scares of various sorts and then get over them. They get used to beams not falling. This is also Hammett’s story: his moving from coast to coast, abusing and abandoning woman after woman, lying, cheating and stealing, his continuing flight, his continuing infliction of damage on others; his own, blind, eternal return. Which suggests a deeper psychological and ethical explanation for Spade’s thoughtlessness: Hammett was a man who, rather than think about what he was doing, simply threw monkey wrenches into other peoples’ lives and who, while he had “talk(ed) to himself through his creation,” had failed to listen. 

It is only at the end of The Maltese Falcon that Hammett allows the reader to listen to Spade’s thinking. When your partner gets killed, he says, you’re “supposed to do something about it,” and not because partnership is a moral entity, a form of mutual obligation. If that were the case Spade wouldn’t have been sleeping with Archer’s wife. Rather, it’s simply bad for the detective business not to. His decision to turn in O’Shaughnessy is driven by nothing other than his desire to keep on doing what he’s doing. Spade even justifies his actions through a comparison to being incapable of self- and ethical reflection: it’s unnatural for a dog (Spade) to let a rabbit (O’Shaughnessy) go. And when Spade raises the issue of trust, he does so as a beaten stray: O’Shaughnessy forfeits her place not in society, but in his life. Spade may have a code, but it is not a moral one.

This makes what Ward calls the “Hammett cult,” which is more accurately a Spade cult, all that more troubling. This cult developed not out of Hammett’s later, political years — his transition into which remains a mystery to be unraveled — but out of Hammett’s Pinkerton years. Hammett claimed that Spade represented what Pinkerton detectives aspired to be and members of the cult, like Joe Gores, go further and claim that Spade represents what all private investigators aspire to be. But few things are sillier than adults aspiring to imitate a cartoon hero or, even worse, a cartoon villain: 

Spade took two long steps and caught Effie Perine by the shoulders. “She didn’t get there?” he bawled into her frightened face.

She shook her head violently from side to side. “I waited and waited and she didn’t come, and I couldn’t get you on the phone, so I came down.”


“If you think I pay any attention to you you’re crazy,” she replied, “only” — she crossed her arms and felt her shoulders, and her mouth twitched uncertainly — “I won’t be able to wear an evening gown for two weeks, you big brute.”

Is this — a detective who is unable to detect, who batters and bruises the innocent — what real private detectives aspire to be?


The real mystery of Samuel Hammett’s transition from marginal detective to Dashiell Hammett, the foundational writer, lies not in Ward’s tale, but elsewhere: how this unlikely vehicle came to capture, in the words of John Cawelti in Adventure, Mystery, and Romance, a “vision of the godless naturalistic cosmos ruled by chance, violence, and death.” And how he came to write stories that “are essentially about the discovery that the comforting pieties of the past — belief in a benevolent universe, in progress, in romantic love — are illusions and that man is alone in a meaningless universe.”

Nothing in Ward’s book suggests that Hammett would ever make that kind of transition, neither as a person who would come to have those thoughts nor as a person who would master the art of embodying them in crime fiction. I suspect, however, that his being a liar, a cheater, a betrayer, a humiliator of women, a batterer, a tormentor of the helpless, an attempted rapist, a strike breaker, and a fraudster gave him a head start. For in all this he practiced the inhuman freedom of his novels. Perhaps Raymond Chandler was right that Hammett had no “deliberate artistic aims whatever.” He simply wrote what he felt and how he lived.

Having now read a good deal of the secondary literature on Hammett, I find much of what has been written about him and Spade to be histrionic and overblown: “the meaningless universe,” “a universe ruled by blind chance,” “chance is all we can rely on.” These proclamations are all the more problematic because they lie at the heart of the mythology of the private detective: the ironic epistemological isolate walking the ontologically mean streets. But little in Hammett’s real life or Spade’s fictional one suggest this is the universe in which either of them lived. Other than the tuberculosis Hammett contracted during World War I, all the metaphorical beams that fell in Hammett’s life were dropped by him on others, particularly those closest to him, and no beams fell on Spade.

In The Maltese Falcon, Spade hails a cab and the driver takes him to Bush Street; he forgoes looking at Archer’s body because he accepts the word of the policeman; he orders pork chops, and the waiter delivers them; he calls officers to take O’Shaughnessy into custody, and they lead her away. Where in all this is a meaningless universe? And how is Sam Spade alone in it? Spade in fiction, like Hammett in fact, no matter how much they violated the expectations of those around them, depended on shared meanings and trust in a common world. Indeed, it is only in a world of givens such as these that the Hammetts and the Spades are free to take. 

Meet Samuel Dashiell Hammett, who fictionalized his real life to lend authority to his fiction. 

Meet Samuel Spade, whose life in fiction has come to represent realism, but only for those, to turn Raymond Chandler on his head, who don’t know what reality is.


Steven Gore is the author of the Graham Gage international thrillers and Harlan Donnelly San Francisco–centered thrillers published by HarperCollins.

LARB Contributor

Steven Gore is the author of the Graham Gage international thrillers and Harlan Donnelly San Francisco–centered thrillers published by HarperCollins. His seventh, White Ghost (William Morrow) is due out in March 2016. The two series draw from his former career as private investigator conducting investigations of murder, fraud, organized crime, corruption, and drug, sex, and arms trafficking throughout the Americas, Europe, and Asia.


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