“Writing from an Illusion: Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961)” by Matthew Sorrento

The Hammett detective seeks any clues he can but is unable to recreate narratives through induction/deduction, hence his need to shake things up and unlock loose parts in the disorder he has confronted….

Note: The below was originally written as an entry on Hammett for The Lost Generation: An Encyclopedia, a project commissioned by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers but cancelled by the editors.

“Los Angeles is a desert community,” states Mayor Bagby (Roy Roberts) in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974). Since the time of the film’s setting (1937), Los Angeles has been a city of illusion, with its development and built environment covering not only a dry environment but a sinister underbelly. As a coastal city, it represents the end of the American frontier, which mid-19th-century journalists Horace Greeley and John L. O’Sullivan urged citizens to explore and claim, which led to it becoming an outpost of corruption. Raymond Chandler, and the fiction and film noir traditions that followed him, as well as the Depression-era existentialist novels like James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935), solidified L.A. and the surrounding area as a bleak end to the frontier.

And yet pre-Chandler, Dashiell Hammett introduced moral decay on the west coast in San Francisco. A writer born and raised in the eastern United States, he took up work for the city’s office of the Pinkerton detective agency, a job which revealed the everyday toil of investigation along with the thrill of the big win. The role inspired his treatment of the hard-boiled detective story, a tradition he helped to solidify. The style upends the well-oiled tale of detection created in Britain by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and influential at the time of Hammett’s start in fiction, the early 1920s. Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is a charismatic archetype of the private investigator, a refined take on the Western world’s first fictional detective, C. Auguste Dupin, created by American Edgar Allen Poe (though set in Paris), and using a similarly amazing level of reasoning to unravel cases. In fashioning an American style of mystery, Hammett used the private investigator as the outsider to the police needed to infiltrate urban crime. While Holmes helps Scotland Yard at times, Hammett used rougher methods to investigate and discover bits of evidence that lead to the culprit. It’s a bleaker take on the investigator as seeker of truth, the practical scientific thinker who reflects a need to impose order on the mysterious, as scientific progress continues.

After World War I – with its advancements in ballistics but not combat safety – in order to be effective a new trend in detective fiction would need to reflect a greater sense of dread. The classic Conan Doyle-style investigator seeks clues to unlock a secret crime and catch up to the criminal, while Hammett’s 1920s gumshoes disrupt the activities of suspects to see what truth will come out of it, mainly by forcing involved parties to face one another, as when Sam Spade brings Brigid O’Shaughnessy (a femme fatale prototype) to Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon (1930). Post-war trauma and its overall mood moved literati like Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Ezra Pound to “make it new” (in the latter writer’s words) while capturing a new darkness in fiction. According to Hammett editor Steven Marcus, Hammett was moved to fulfill a lifelong wish to write when stricken with tuberculosis; it was diagnosed after he caught the Spanish Flu while serving stateside during WWI for the Ambulance Corps of the US Army.[1] Hence, his protagonists’ weighty goals, to restore order in the bleakest of times, reflected his urgency to write.  

In the early 1920s Hammett began publishing stories in Black Mask and other magazines. Many featured an unnamed detective (like Poe’s protagonists) working for the Continental Detective Agency’s San Francisco branch. This figure would come come to be known at the Continental Op, a character who lives to go on a case, and the stories often start right when his case does. The investigator’s identity barely expanding his professional role would become a trademark of noir detection (continued by the influential example of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe). The Hammett investigator is an outsider so hardened by the environment he works that he’s become part criminal. Hammett’s first two novels Red Harvest and The Dain Curse (both 1929, and previously serialized) featured the Op, and the expanded narrative length underscores his shadowy, loner identity (he remains unnamed). Influential to noir as he has been, Hammett’s Continental Op, like Sam Spade, is a product of the Lost Generation, for those returning to the American city from WWI service who recognize the familial communal systems as no longer sustaining.

While Hammett’s serialization of stories led to his debut novels in 1929, his writing career ended in 1934, with the publication of The Thin Man (though he would remain committed to left-wing causes, fighting the Hollywood Blacklist in the 1950s, and even serving in the Aleutians during World War II).

It’s as if classical detection wouldn’t work anyway. The Hammett detective seeks any clues he can but is unable to recreate narratives through induction/deduction, hence his need to shake things up and unlock loose parts in the disorder he has confronted. Devotees, like Marcus, read Hammett’s brute force investigation as unique, while detractors, like thriller novelist Steven Gore, find it a shortcoming.[2] The theme of detection in disorder (and dislodging that disorder) proves Hammett to be a major voice of the “lost” of the 1920s, his place in popular fiction offering him a broad platform. His cases suggest that the Conan Doyle tradition offers a fantasy of resolution, while the Hammett style depicts the need for cities to survive and hopefully rebuild in time. The trail to the criminal element reveals a constructed reality (according to Marcus) masking the greater emptiness of the time. The “Maltese Falcon” itself, a jeweled gift covered in black enamel to hide its value, reflects the author’s thematic concern[3]: a fake of the falcon is so good that it fools the imposing boss, Casper Gutman.

While Hammett’s serialization of stories led to his debut novels in 1929, his writing career ended in 1934, with the publication of The Thin Man (though he would remain committed to left-wing causes, fighting the Hollywood Blacklist in the 1950s, and even serving in the Aleutians during World War II). By 1934 he had gone to Hollywood, where studios grew interested in his scriptwriting, and his legacy would grow onscreen. Hammett added more personality to his investigators in fiction, as his relatively brief writing career developed. The Maltese Falcon’s Sam Spade possesses much of the Op but has individuality and charm, especially with women. The novel’s use of the femme fatale shows her to be a product of misogynistic mistrust of the post-WWI reassimilation of troops (even if the figure grew in prominence during and after the Second World War). Spade uses O’Shaughnessy to foil police, and then, marks her as guilty of murder after gaining her trust. Personal relationships serve investigation, not building the future.

In The Glass Key (1931, serialized in 1930) Hammett continued to personalize the private eye with the gambler and novice detective Ned Beaumont, while The Thin Man (1934, serialized in 1933), Hammett’s final novel (written 27 years before his death) involves Nick, who has given up his career having married Nora, a wealth heiress. The team gets involved in investigating a murder while their camaraderie continues throughout. Renown for reflecting the beginning of Hammett’s 30-year affair with Lillian Hellman (to whom he dedicated the book; Hammett would remain married to Josephine Dolan until 1937), The Thin Man brings the investigator into a communal structure, no longer the wanderer of the bleak American city but still making sense of it through investigation. Set at the end of prohibition, the novel highlights Nick and Nora’s relationship and witty banter as fueled by speakeasy spirits.

The Thin Man came to screen (the same year of the novel’s release) with a jovial wittiness, thanks to stars William Powell and Myrna Loy and direction by W.S. Van Dyke. The slight but sure approach made the tale credible as a pre-World War II mystery. And yet Hammett’s true legacy didn’t come to film until seven years after his final novel. John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) honors the novel’s tone after two misinformed adaptations (1930 and 1935, as Satan Met a Lady). Eventually inspiring Japanese and, in turn, Italian cinema (Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo [1961] which inspired A Fistful of Dollars [1964], thus reshaping cinema to come) Red Harvest would inspire the 1940s lensing of Chandler’s tales as well as the criminal-centered noirs based on James M. Cain works, Double Indemnity (1944, screenplay co-written by Chandler) and 1946 The Postman Always Rings Twice. But as the piece that would introduce Hammett to fans and experts for years to come, the 1941 film introduced Humphrey Bogart as the PI, a role that established the charm of the American hard-boiled cynic and placed Hammett firmly in the American consciousness to the present.


[1] Steven Marcus, “Introduction” in The Continental Op, ed. by Steven Marcus (New York: Vintage Books, 1992 [1974]), ix.

[2] Marcus, “Introduction”; Steven Gore, “Unbecoming Dashiell Hammett,” Los Angeles Review of Books, September 15, 2015, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/unbecoming-dashiell-hammett/, accessed 5/10/2016.

[3] Marcus, “Introduction.”

Matthew Sorrento is Editor-in-chief of Retreats from Oblivion and Co-editor of Film International. A critic and poet, he teaches film and media studies at Rutgers University in Camden. His latest book is David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation (co-edited with David Ryan; FDU Press, December 2021).

2 thoughts on ““Writing from an Illusion: Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961)” by Matthew Sorrento

  1. An excellent perspective, Matt, and one to which my own work will make reference! There are many cultural links here that can be further explored.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s