Thursday, May 27, 2010

Notes For May 27th, 2010

This Day In Writing History

On May 27th, 1894, the great writer and master of the hardboiled detective thriller Dashiell Hammett was born. Samuel Dashiell Hammett was born in St. Mary's County, Maryland, on a farm called Hopewell and Aim. Hammett's mother, Anne Bond Dashiell, was a descendant of one of Maryland's oldest families. When he turned 13, Hammett left school to work.

In 1915, at the age of 21, Hammett landed a job at the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency, where he worked for six years as an operative. This experience would plant the seeds of his writing career. Disillusioned by Pinkerton's role in strike-breaking and other anti-union activities, Hammett quit the agency in disgust. During World War 1, Hammett served in the Army in the Motor Ambulance Corps, but illness cut his tour of duty short; first he'd contracted Spanish flu, then tuberculosis. He spent most of the war in a hospital in Tacoma, Washington.

While in the hospital, Hammett met and later married a nurse, Josephine Dolan. She bore him two daughters, Mary Jane in 1921 and Josephine in 1926. Shortly after his second child's birth, due to Hammett's tuberculosis, Health Services nurses told his wife that she and the children should not live with him. So, they took an apartment in San Francisco. Hammett visited them on the weekends. Unfortunately, the separation took too great a toll on the marriage, and it fell apart.

Hammett started drinking and tried his hand at several jobs before beginning a writing career. His early work was comprised of a series of short stories featuring a detective with no name, referred to as The Continental Op. The short stories led to two novels, Red Harvest (February 1929) and The Dain Curse (July 1929). In Red Harvest, the Continental Op arrives in a coal mining town called Personville to meet with a new client, but finds that the man has been murdered. The client's father, a local industrialist, tells the Op that warring criminal gangs are fighting for control of Personville.

The Op solves his client's murder. With the Chief of Police totally corrupt, the Op cleans up the town by extracting and distributing the information he needs to set up a final showdown between the criminal gangs, manipulating them into wiping each other out. It has been suggested that Red Harvest was the inspiration for the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's 1961 masterwork, Yojimbo. Kurosawa often expressed his admiration for hardboiled American detective novels, citing them as an inspiration for several of his movies.

In 1929, Hammett became romantically involved with mystery writer Nell Martin, dedicating his novel The Glass Key to her. By 1931, their relationship ended and Hammett embarked on a lifelong affair with legendary playwright Lillian Hellman. They would never marry.

Hammett's writing matured after the publication and success of his Continental Op novels, his prose becoming more realistic and hardboiled. In 1930, Hammett published his classic novel, The Maltese Falcon, featuring one of the great detective characters of all time, Sam Spade. A bitter, sardonic character, Spade lets the police and other criminals think that he's a criminal while he works to nail the bad guys. The novel opens with Spade and his partner Miles Archer being hired by a woman, Miss Wonderly, to tail Floyd Thursby, a man who allegedly ran off with her underage sister. When Archer and Thursby suddenly end up murdered, Sam becomes the prime suspect.

Later, a man named Joel Cairo offers Sam $5000 to retrieve a valuable figurine of a black bird known as the Maltese Falcon. Suddenly, Cairo pulls a gun on Sam and decides to search Spade's office for the bird. The case leads Sam on a collision course with Cairo, rotund crime boss Kasper Gutman, and Gutman's bodyguard, Wilmer Cook. The Maltese Falcon was filmed three times, in 1931, 1936, (as Satan Met A Lady) and 1941.

While the 1931 version wonderfully captures the grittier elements of the novel, the other two were sanitized as per Production Code requirements. (In the novel, Sam Spade is having an affair with both his partner's wife and his female client, Gutman and Cook are obviously homosexual lovers, and the effeminate Cairo is also gay.) However, the 1941 version, featuring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, is still the best of the three and rightfully considered an all-time movie classic.

Hammett's 1934 novel, The Thin Man, also turned out to be a classic. Set in New York City during Prohibition, ex-private detective Nick Charles and his clever, witty wife Nora - a wealthy socialite - spend most of their time cheerfully drunk in speakeasies and hotel rooms. Though he retired from the detective business, Nick finds himself investigating yet another crime, with Nora's help. As they try to solve a murder, Nick and Nora engage in snappy banter and imbibe vast quantities of alcohol. The case leads them into the rough world of gangsters, hoodlums, and the grotesque Wynant family.

The Thin Man would inspire a series of movies featuring the characters of Nick and Nora Charles, as well as a Thin Man TV series. It has been suggested that Dashiell Hammett modeled Nick and Nora after the personalities (and drinking habits) of himself and his longtime lover, Lillian Hellman. The Thin Man would prove to be Hammett's last novel.

Hammett devoted the rest of his life to political activism. In the 1930s, Hammett, a ferocious and outspoken anti-fascist, joined the Communist Party and the League of American Writers, a group of left-leaning activist writers. In 1942, Hammett, a disabled veteran of the first world war and ex-tuberculosis patient, pulled strings to get himself readmitted to the service. He spent most of World War 2 as a Sergeant stationed in the Aleutian Islands, where he edited an Army newspaper. He returned from the war with more lung trouble, this time emphysema.

Returning to political activism, Hammett was elected President of the Civil Rights Congress of New York in June of 1946 and devoted most of his time to working for the CRC. In 1951, he would be brought to testify before a U.S. District Court judge about his CRC activities. He refused to testify to anything, pleading the Fifth Amendment to every question. Congress began a full investigation of Hammett, and two years later in 1953, he was brought to testify before the HUAC - the House Un-American activities Committee. Hammett openly testified to his own activities, but refused to cooperate with the committee and inform on others. As a result, he was blacklisted.

Both trials took a toll on Hammett's already declining health. He died of lung cancer a few years later in 1961, at the age of 66. As he was a veteran of two world wars, Hammett was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Dashiell Hammett was one of America's greatest writers, a former detective turned author of hardboiled detective stories and novels whose iconic characters - and the classic films they inspired - will live on forever.

Quote Of The Day

"I've been as bad an influence on American literature as anyone I can think of." - Dashiell Hammett

Vanguard Video

Today's video features the original theatrical trailer for the acclaimed 1941 feature film adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's classic novel, The Maltese Falcon. Enjoy!

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