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Review: ‘The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett” by Nathan Ward

The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett

By Nathan Ward


214 pages,$26

By Michael D. Langan

“A private detective doesn’t want to be an erudite solver of riddles, he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with…” – Dashiell Hammett

Nathan Ward, the author of “The Lost Detective,” has been an editor with American Heritage, and has written for the New York Times and other publications. He earlier wrote, “The War for the New York Waterfront,” and now his book about Dashiell Hammett, who made the detective Sam Spade a household name from the 1930s to the 1950s of the last century.

Hammett was born in Maryland and dropped out of school at 14. He worked at nondescript jobs, then caught on as a Pinkerton man, working as a private detective for that firm, with time off for enlistment in the military in 1918, at the end of World War I. He contracted pneumonia, married a nurse, Josephine Dolan, and they had two daughters.

Ward’s contribution to Hammett’s life is his concentration on how the author became a writer. In a sense, developing what might have otherwise been “lost” as in the title of the book: “his experiences in Baltimore, Montana, and especially San Francisco, which deeply informed his writing and characters.”

About this, Ward writes, “Scars had made him credible.” Hammett often took the occasion to summon up harrowing stories from the mid-1920s “with growing poise about the rough types and places he used to know.”

He looked from his sun porch on Eddy Street in San Francisco: “a young man wearing tweed cap and sweater-vest, looking confident and wickedly thin,” in a photo taken by his wife, Josephine, whom he married in 192l. They divorced in 1937. There was the time he showed his daughters the scars on his legs and the dent in his skull from various villains and an angry strike worker. He told the stories so often and variably that he truth was mostly in the latest telling.

Ward asks the obvious question about such a down-on-his-luck character, “How did he get from detective to writer?”

Hammett apparently never answered that question to himself or others satisfactorily, according to Ward. The process of becoming successful seemed to have been an accumulation of things, good and bad: his detective work and his peddling of crime stories to pulp magazines, especially the Black Mask.

Dashiell Hammett taught himself to write, our author says, “mentored by criminologists, historians and novelists he brought home from what he called his university,” the public library in San Francisco.

Hammett sculpted the American crime novel, writing at least two classics, “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Thin Man,” his last novel of five written between 1929 and 1934, along with numerous short stories. Many critics think his first novel, “Red Harvest,” was his best.

Others remember Humphrey Bogart playing Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon” and William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles in “The Thin Man” film series.

In my view it did Hammett little good later to take up with Lillian Hellman, about whom biography Dorothy Gallagher wrote: “was … talented, ambitious, restless, audacious, highly sexual, funny, generous, avaricious, mendacious, demanding, greedy, contemptuous, dogmatic, irritable, mean, jealous, self-righteous, angry … a piece of work.” So far as Hellman’s writing went, she depended upon Hammett – perhaps more than many knew – for his review, correction and approval. (After Hammett’s early noir successes, his own capacity to create stalled. They were companions from 1921 until he died in 1961.)

It seems clear that his attachment to Hellmann and blacklisting during the McCarthy era were added ingredients to his gloomy, declining existence.

His devil-may-care life had consequences. Hammett, according to Gallagher, increased the frequency of long-held habits of smoking and drinking. His sex with prostitutes meant recurrent bouts of gonorrhea. In the end, emphysema, lung cancer and tuberculosis brought him down.

In the end, Raymond Chandler, his successor in the crime game, said this about Hammett: “Hammett was the ace performer … He is said to have lacked heart, yet the story he himself thought most of, ‘The Glass Key,’ is the record of a man’s devotion to a friend. He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.”

Nathan Ward’s book shines a detective’s flashlight on Hammett’s early development. To a degree, understanding the broader import of Ward’s emphases requires the reader to have a view of what happened to Hammett in the end.

Ward fills in these parentheses nicely and with panache.

Michael D. Langan is a frequent book reviewer for The Buffalo News.