Sunday, September 20, 2015
THE LOST DETECTIVE By Nathan Ward
When one thinks of such tales as The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, surely American classics, many would assume that the author was a fascinating character. That may have been true yet much of what we know about Dashiell Hammett is fiction itself as stories that he told have been proven untrue and little of his early writing may be found today. Even suppositions by Ward have scant basis, such as his speculation that working for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency where he was required to submit operative reports sharpened Hammett’s ability to write. However, none of Hammett’s reports can be found in the Pinkerton archives. Nonetheless, The Lost Man is satisfying reading for as his granddaughter notes it gives us a vivid picture of Hammett’s life and times and his early family life (pre-Hellman) as she puts it. The pre-Hellman being a reference to Lillian Hellman to whom Hammett became attached later in his life.
One finds little promise in the young Hammett who left school at 14 in order to help his family financially. He tackled everything from office messenger to paperboy to dock worker, jobs from which he was usually fired. Some five years later he ran across what someone called “the company’s blind recruitment ad,” he replied and was hired by the Baltimore office of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. “Gumshoeing” as he called it was what he really liked, and there can be no doubt that this experience provided material for his future novels.
After a stint in the service he developed tuberculosis and was no longer able to work as a detective, but by that time he had a wife and family to support. What could he do? He wrote. And we are the better for it as his creation of Sam Spade not only gave us great pleasure but was an example for crime writers for years to come.
Nash traces Hammett’s personal life but primarily focuses on his works as he becomes a popular author. Attention is paid to the time he spent in California as the Thin Man movies were being filmed, and his blacklisting. The book ends rather abruptly in 1935 when Hammett was at the peak of his fame, yet it is a fascinating and satisfying examination of this author’s life.