Aside from Edgar Allan Poe (who, after all, pretty much invented the detective story), the most significant figure in the history of American mystery fiction is Dashiell Hammett, who brought realism to an artificial literary genre.
Contrivance is an essential element in all fiction, but never to a greater degree than in the detective story. This is not a derogatory observation: The ordinary day of even the most colorful people on the planet is filled with the repetitive tedium of just living. Showering, brushing teeth, going to the bathroom, making a pot of coffee, getting dressed, taking out the trash, shopping for groceries, getting a haircut — hardly the stuff of a thrilling or captivating reading experience. Naturally, authors generally devote little attention to these daily events, for which readers are quietly thankful.
Still, there are levels of contrivance, and its preponderance may be a good way to separate the outstanding writers from the pedestrian ones. The pure detective story is constructed with the elements required of the genre: a detective (professional or amateur), crime (usually murder), suspects, clues, deception, and motives (real or imagined).
Early detective novels and short stories tended to be designed as puzzles (though some of the earliest, written by such distinguished authors as Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Sheridan Le Fanu, and a handful of others, brought full literary skills to the work). The emphasis, therefore, was on plot, skillfully built to challenge the reader’s powers of observation and deduction, which were, of course, almost always just a step or two behind the detective’s.
Characterization carried little importance, as the characters were merely cogs required to make the engine of the story move forward. Murderers, and detectives as well, might be elderly spinsters in a charming village, vicars, librarians, scholars, and aristocrats — all sorts of people who either feel compelled to kill an adversary or find it jolly fun to catch someone who did.
Into this world of the mystery came the hard-boiled writer Dashiell Hammett, of whom Raymond Chandler, the stylish American crime novelist, wrote in his classic essay “The Simple Art of Murder”: “Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse. . . . He put these people down on paper as they were, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes.”
The murderers who populate Hammett’s stories don’t belong to garden clubs, and they are unlikely to serve tea to guests. They are often career criminals — violent thugs who are just as happy to beat someone to death as to shoot him. Neither college professors nor Grandma Moses were likely to provide appropriate counterweights to this level of criminal, so Hammett created private detectives who were even tougher than their adversaries. The language in which he described them and told their stories was as blunt and sharp-edged as the weapons he gave them. He was as influential as his contemporary Ernest Hemingway in creating a uniquely American literary style, as far removed from the leisurely prose of Henry James and Agatha Christie as a vial of poison slipped into a glass of sherry is distant from the butt of a revolver to the base of the skull.
Hammett knew what he was writing about, having worked for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency for many years, and it is this seldom-explored part of his life that is a key feature of The Lost Detective, Nathan Ward’s splendid biography of this keystone figure of American letters.
Fittingly, there have been numerous biographies of Hammett, most notably Richard Layman’s Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett (1981), but none have explored as deeply his life before he became a writer. There can be little doubt that Hammett’s work with the Pinkertons was the greatest influence on who he became, both as a person and as an author.
In order to understand what it meant to be “a Pinkerton,” it is necessary to know what America’s first private-detective agency was, and Ward presents this knowledge wonderfully, providing a narrative of Allan Pinkerton, the Scot who created the agency, and of its rise to national prominence through a series of major triumphs, not the least of which was saving Abraham Lincoln from an assassination attempt in 1861. By the early 20th century, it had become so successful and prosperous that it had a virtual army attached to its various bureaus around the country, and it rented out its operatives on a wide range of assignments, including as a fearsome strike-breaking force. First hired to protect buildings, equipment, and non-union personnel, the agency quickly took on more active anti-union roles, including sending armed strongmen to break up picket lines and demonstrations.
In 1917, workers went on strike at the Anaconda Copper Mining Company in Butte, Mont. A professional agitator, Frank Little, came to town in order to heighten the chaos. The strike was an exceptionally hostile one, and it inspired an ever-growing level of violence from both sides. Little soon became the sharpest thorn in the side of the mining company, which decided to use extreme measures to extract it.
Lillian Hellman, in what might be the only true story she narrated in her fictionalized and discredited memoir, Scoundrel Time (1976), wrote of the incident:
I remember sitting on a bed next to him in the first months after we met, listening to him tell me about his Pinkerton days when an officer of Anaconda Copper Company [sic] had offered him five thousand dollars to kill Frank Little, the labor union organizer. I didn’t know Hammett well enough to hear the anger under the calm voice, the bitterness under the laughter, so I said, “He couldn’t have made such an offer unless you had been strike-breaking for Pinkerton.”
“That’s about right,” he said.
Ward recognizes the significance of the bribe, just as Hellman did, though she was more offended by the fact that Hammett was a strike-breaker than by the bribe offer. He further quotes Hellman: “Through the years, he was to repeat that bribe offer so many times that I came to believe, knowing him now, that it was a kind of key to his life. He had given a man the right to think he would murder. I think I can date Hammett’s belief that he was living in a corrupt society from Little’s murder.”
The violence and corruption that flourished during the battle between Anaconda and the union, as well as in the town of Butte, all served to inspire Hammett’s first novel, Red Harvest (1929). Butte is called “Personville,” though it is commonly referred to by the locals as “Poisonville,” and the Pinkerton agency morphs into the Continental Detective Agency. The “operative” (a term coined by Allan Pinkerton) hired to clean up the town remains nameless, known only as the Continental Op; he is also the protagonist in Hammett’s second novel, The Dain Curse (1929), and in the best of his short stories and novellas.
Ward has done his research. Hammett’s involvement with the notorious Fatty Arbuckle case has been frequently discussed, as has his instrumental role in the recovery of a Ferris wheel; but Ward’s relentless digging has thrown more than a little doubt onto those cases, which turn out to have only Hammett as a source for the degree of his involvement.
The Lost Detective inevitably discusses Hammett’s books and his Hollywood work, as well as his relationships with his wives and Hellman, but that information has been provided elsewhere and in greater depth. That’s not a knock on the book: Ward wisely chose to focus on Hammett’s formative years, and his seminal connection to the Pinkertons fills the first half of the book admirably.
There is, too, a comprehensive exploration of Hammett’s struggles with health, the effects of which may have been underappreciated before Ward’s chronicle of the devastating impact of those illnesses. In 1918, Hammett, 24, joined the Army and contracted influenza and tuberculosis, which nearly killed him. For the rest of his life, he suffered from numerous ailments, nearly dying more than once; most of the diseases were connected to that initial attack, though Hammett’s alcoholism contributed. The effects of his poor health kept him chronically underweight, and he sank to a nadir when, at six feet tall, he weighed 120 pounds. In the early days of the 1920s, too weak to do much of anything else, he thought he might have a try at writing.
I recommend you read Red Harvest, The Maltese Falcon, and The Glass Key, but read The Lost Detective first for a deeper understanding of how this extraordinary author was able to produce such enduring masterpieces.
– Mr. Penzler is the owner of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, the founder of The Mysterious Press, and the editor of more than 70 anthologies.