Sunday, June 23, 2013

Dashiell Hammett - an extremely odd duck

And an extremely red one.  I've just finished "Shadow Man" the life of
Dashiell Hammett" by Richard Layman.  Needless to say Layman destroys the romance about him (created by Hellman): that Hammett and Hellman were real life Nick and Nora Charles, that "Dash" was a noble liberal brought down by the nasty red-hunters, and that poor "Dash" couldn't write anymore because of sickness.  All shown to be false and as phony as Hammett's claim to be a highly experienced Detective.

Hammett's odd writing career -Perhaps no 20th successful American author has had such an odd career.  His career can be broken into four phases.  From 1923-1927 Hammett toiled as a free-lance magazine writer - primarily at "Black Mask" a pulp magazine specializing in crime/detective stories. Then came his successful career as a novelist.  From 1928 to 1933 Hammett wrote 5 novels including the two that made him famous "The Maltese Falcon" and "The Thin Man".  The third phase was from  1934-1941 during his close association with Hellman.  He helped Hellman write the "The Children's Hour" and "Little Foxes", wrote/co-wrote several "Thin Man" movie scripts, and 
The author was aided by other researchers in gathering facts about Samuel Dashiell Hammett's life. He followed leads, found answers to questions, and interviewed anyone who claimed to have known Dash. SDH worked at different jobs before joining Pinkerton as a detective. He joined the Army in 1917, and contracted a lung disease and TB during the 1918 Flue Pandemic. His disability pension wasn't enough for his family; he studied at a Business College and started to work in advertising. He then began to write for publication. In spite of his lung disease he smoked and he drank.
SDH began to gain success by 1923 with his short stories; he was too sick for any other work. His advertising job ended when he collapsed with bleeding lungs; he also had hepatitis. He renewed his literary efforts, and success followed. He then wrote longer novels, and gained more wealth and fame. He left his family and moved to New York's literary milieu. He indulged in liquor, women, money, and fame; he was "Nick Charles", not "Sam Spade". Drinking handicapped his Hollywood career, and flushed away his talents. Recycling his writings on radio during the 1940s earned him money; this ended after his refusal to testify in 1951. The next ten years were spent in poverty. After his death in 1961 he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, far to the left of Senator Joseph McCarthy
Its hard to think of another successful  novelist who published 5 novels in 6 years, including two famous ones "The Thin Man' and "The Maltese Falcon  and then  stopped writing novels or short stories at the age of 40.  Although Hammett spend time in the 30s Hollywood and Broadway his literary career more or less stopped after "Thin man" and never wrote anything worthwhile in his remaining 27 years.

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