he Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett (Bloomsbury, September). He has written for the New York Times, Village Voice, Wall Street Journal, and other publications and was an editor and writer at American Heritage. Ward is the author of Dark Harbor: The War for the New York Waterfront (FSG, 2010). Ward is on tour this month. Be sure and check the schedule. Thanks, Nathan, for stopping by Mystery Fanfare.
Dashiell Hammett & The Missing Clue
There was much to discourage writing a book about Samuel Dashiell Hammett’s elusive early years, which is perhaps why one didn’t exist when I went looking for it to read. Hammett’s early life did not offer much of a paper trail for a biographer to follow—far fewer letters than you’d want, certainly no diary, and since he did not start writing anything until his late twenties, there wasn’t the usual collection of youthful poems and manuscripts to pick over.
I typically like learning the story behind the art—for instance, that Picasso was possibly inspired by childhood memories of a Spanish earthquake and fire when he composed his masterwork Guernica, or what was the true criminal story behind the film On the Waterfront. But in the case of Hammett, much as I loved his stories and novels, it was skepticism that first drew me to investigate his early background as a Pinkerton. He was presented as a sort of late-blooming accidental artist, someone who took up writing out of necessity and then led a revolution in crime writing. This myth was hard to fathom, though appealing. “I decided to become a writer,” he recalled in 1929. “It was a good idea. Having had no experience whatever in writing, except writing letters and reports, I wasn’t handicapped by exaggerated notions of the difficulties ahead.”
The dispatches (known as op reports) he had written as a Pinkerton detective comprised his professional writing experience before 1922, when he began sending out his first stories. But his actual reports themselves have never been found. What there was was an intriguing myth, what in comic books is called an origins story: young man contracts tuberculosis, becomes incapacitated out of detecting work and, desperate to feed his family, decides to try writing crime stories based on his former experiences. The full biographies, like cross-country trains, could not afford to stop very long at this station of Hammett’s life on their way to Hollywood and Lillian, McCarthy and the sad end. They had so much else to cover. I decided that by concentrating on his youth and transition, a sort of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Pinkerton, I might have the room to really understand this vital but murky period—if there was anything to find.
Just as the Kansas City Star (with its famous style sheet requiring short sentences and vigorous English) helped shape the prose of the young Ernest Hemingway, out of the scores of men trained as Pinkertons, one emerged from the Agency able to make something entirely new from his experiences. “Detecting has its high spots,” Hammett recalled in the twenties, “but the run of the work is the most monotonous that any one could imagine. The very things that can be made to sound the most exciting in the telling are in the doing usually the most dully tiresome.” His deeper skills lay in that telling.
How good a detective had he been? What sort of jobs did he perform as a Pinkerton? No one had ever said except for Hammett himself, who once claimed his reputation within the agency was higher than it should have been because of the quality of his reports. I believe that. The written record was indeed pretty skimpy; most of the stories of his Pinkerton cases were expansively told only by Hammett himself, and the lore grew over time. Was the San Francisco cable car robbery his last case? Did he really find a stolen ferris wheel? And, if he was so sick during this time, how could you find out when he was too ill to work as a detective? I needed something to serve as a chronology, a way of keeping track of him through time as I investigated. The Army, in which he had first contracted tuberculosis in 1918 (discharged, early 1919) kept track of his health for years afterward as he was examined to determine his disability. His Army medical file laid out a biography of Hammett’s illness, which turned out to be one reliable way of keeping tabs on him through his vagabond days: Where he lived month to month, how he seemed physically and thus what kind of work he was fit for, what he told each visiting nurse he was doing for money (for instance, did he brag to her about selling stories?) and where his wife and children lived year to year.
For years there was only one document extant (found by the private detective and Hammett scholar David Fechheimer) in which Hammett gave his profession as a Pinkerton op. But online I was able to not only track his listed addresses from year to year (even if they sometimes lagged behind where he was living), I found his draft card, where he gave his profession as ‘Private Detective,’ and (through Google books) I discovered the works and portrait of the real Mr. Flitcraft, the insurance publisher whose name Hammett lifted for his famous story within Maltese Falcon. Most interesting to me, however, was the 1900 census, taken when the Hammetts lived in Philadelphia: It was probably his mother Annie who came to the door of their row house at 2942 Poplar Street, since the census taker recorded the address was then home to three children: Reba, Richard, and a six-year-old middle child, “Dashell.” Hammett’s evolution from Sam to Dashiell is not a straight line, but his mother certainly called him Dashiell (Da-SHEEL) as a small boy, although he was known to most everyone else by his first name, Sam, until the late twenties, when he became the literary figure Dash Hammett, and donated his name (and his San Francisco apartment at 891 Post Street) to Sam Spade, who lives there still.
After three years, I felt that the myth of how he went from real detective to writer of detective books was roughly true. But, in writing about Hammett’s transition there were two major items I would have given anything to find and couldn't—even now in the time when someone’s death certificate, draft card, passport applications, and even embarrassing high school yearbooks all end up online. Obviously, I would have loved to find his missing op reports (and I learned a lot about the Pinkerton life during Hammett’s tenure by reading hundreds of op reports by other detectives). The other document I would have loved to have was seemingly small but might have gone far toward filling in the gaps in those early years when, sick in his apartment, he taught himself how to write—improving story by story and stubbornly freeing his gift. His library card would have given stamped evidence of what precisely he was reading week by week (Henry James, Wilkie Collins, Ford Maddox Ford, various criminologists) while he started writing stories for magazines. It would have deepened the picture.
Here and there in later years, Hammett would mention books that had inspired him, telling James Thurber, for instance, that there were elements of Henry James’s Wings of the Dove in his Maltese Falcon, but a successful man recalling his lofty influences is not the same as the stamped, dated titles on a library card. In Hammett’s story “The Tenth Clew,” the op ends up throwing out much of his evidence in order to make a fresh start and solve the crime. In a similar vein, in trying to solve the mystery of Dashiell Hammett, I would have traded some superfluous information—a couple of the early jobs he was fired from, perhaps, before he walked into the Pinkerton offices in Baltimore in 1915-- for that reader’s card. It was probably tossed years ago, but it haunts me as a clue that got away.
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