Politics & Policy

The Mysterious Dashiell Hammett

New stories show his emotional range, but biographers still whitewash his support for Stalin.

On January 11, 1961, mystery writer Dashiell Hammett died. Fifty-three years later, he still fascinates. This has less to do with his writings (whose style and subject matter have been endlessly borrowed) than with the mysteries he left behind. Two of the most enduring are why such an independent and intelligent man robotically supported Josef Stalin, and why, after 1934, he never wrote another word as long as he lived.

Those seeking answers to these questions were for a time stymied by the woman with whom he had a 30-year affair, the lawsuit-happy control-freak Lillian Hellman. She owned the copyright of his works and had many of his letters in her iron grip. When she finally died in 1984, her Berlin Wall crumbled and she stood revealed as a self-serving myth-maker. We learned that, far from being the ideal lover, devoted to his glamorous and witty partner, Hammett had beat her on a number of occasions and forced her to engage in lesbian sex for his voyeuristic enjoyment.

After Hellman’s death, Hammett’s relatives came forward, perhaps because they no longer feared her wrath. (Hammett’s wife and daughters could not have had a happy relationship with Lillian Hellman while she was alive, given that Hellman had managed to cut them out of his will.)

Biographers owe much to Hammett’s daughter, Jo. She not only penned an ambivalent memoir about her father, Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers; she also opened up her attic and garage to researcher Richard Laymen and to her own daughter, Julie Rivett. Thanks to Jo Hammett, we can finally solve the mystery of why her father stopped writing: He didn’t. As she put it in her memoir, he “didn’t stop writing so much as he stopped finishing.”

But Hammett did finish on at least some occasions, and the unearthed results — collected for the first time in The Return of the Thin Man (2012) and The Hunter and Other Stories (2013) — refute the speculation by other biographers that Hammett stopped writing because he dared not reveal himself emotionally to readers.

In the two story treatments he did for the movie sequels in the Thin Man series, Hammett showed his emotional range and his capacity to craft fully rounded characters.

A common misperception about the first film in the series was that it was lifted intact from the 1934 detective novel of the same name. Hammett was therefore credited with the novelty of mixing screwball comedy with the mystery genre. The honor more properly belongs to screenwriters Albert Hackett and Francis Goodrich, who were confronted with source material that was hardly screwball. In the novel, Nick and Nora Charles have an open marriage: He disappears with a redhead to show her his “etchings,” while she moons over someone else’s husband. To leaven such material, the screenwriters transformed the union into a fun but loyal one, and with the addition of movie stars William Powell and Myrna Loy, the characters became warm-hearted.

But if we give proper credit to Hackett and Goodrich, Hammett wins laurels for the two sequels he wrote. When tasked with turning out two Thin Man sequels for MGM, Hammett proved that he could adapt his writing to fit the newfound mix of screwball and mystery. A lot was going on in Hammett’s life in this period (1935–38), most of which would presumably not have helped him write good-humored characters. He was committed to a sanitarium for gonorrhea, alcoholism, and nervous exhaustion. He tried and failed numerous times to quit drinking and eventually checked himself into a hospital because he feared he was going insane.

Nevertheless he made the character Nick Charles into a husband that was all Dashiell Hammett was not: happy, monogamous, and a caring father to boot. That he could pull this off is a testament to a previously hidden emotional range, for he hated the Thin Man couple, calling them “insufferably smug.” Within three years of their debut, he would sell all character rights to MGM.

But for those who would confine Hammett’s ability to show emotion to this period of his career, the earlier stories in The Hunter make clear that it had always been there. In this collection, Hammett reveals a sensitive side when writing about male-female relationships. Unlike the “murderous bitches” of his detective stories, the women in The Hunter come off better than the men. Hammett also writes movingly of self-sacrifice. In “On the Way” (1932), a thinly veiled account of his mentoring of Hellman, the male character is willing to step out of the limelight once his star apprentice achieves literary success.

It’s a pity that Sally Cline, in Dashiell Hammett: Man of Mystery (2014), doesn’t apply to Hammett’s politics the same diligent research that Laymen and Rivett applied to his literary output. Joan Mellen, in Hellman and Hammett (1997) gave a blistering account of the couple’s lifelong devotion to Stalinism. Rather than consult this biography or do her own investigation, Cline falls back on the euphemism Hammett preferred: Stalinists were merely “liberals in a hurry.” Acquiescing to this lie, Cline transforms Hammett from a blindly loyal Stalinist into an independent thinker and fierce supporter of individual liberty. But we know that Hammett applied his civil-liberty principles selectively: He touted them only when the Communist Party came under threat; otherwise, he supported government prosecution of Trotskyites.

Cline’s sloppiness here is a shame, for her book has much to recommend it. Extremely well-written, it provides the best account thus far of Hammett’s view of life. He saw the universe as a random place governed by no laws other than chaos. The only safe harbor is that found in a moral code; Sam Spade, in The Maltese Falcon, operates in and accepts this cheerless world, hanging on by his fingertips to only one creed, which is the need to avenge his partner.

By not facing the reality of Hammett’s politics, Cline misses perhaps the biggest irony of all (or perhaps it’s more apt than ironic): that a man who saw the universe as indifferent and chaotic supported a regime that turned the Soviet Union into a cruel madhouse, a place where twelve-year-olds faced the death penalty and arbitrary exercise of power was the norm, where you could get a bullet in the head or get sent to the gulag for dancing with the wrong person or smiling the wrong way in a meeting with Stalin. Hammett was never able to see the link between the random, godless world he and his characters lived in and the capricious savagery of his Communist heroes. Cline follows Hammett in her blindness.

Alas, the false promises of Communism remain intoxicating for far too many. Only when writers such as Cline can let go of fashionable views about American Communists will we get a full accounting of Dashiell Hammett, man of mystery, hardboiled writer with a sensitive side — and apologist for tyranny.

— Ron Capshaw is a writer living in Midlothian, Va.


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