Samuel Dashiell Hammett (/ˈsæmjʊəl dəˈʃl ˈhæmət/; May 27, 1894 – January 10, 1961) was an American author of hard-boiled detective novels and short stories, screenwriter, and political activist. Among the enduring characters he created are Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon), Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man), and the Continental Op (Red Harvest and The Dain Curse).

Hammett "is now widely regarded as one of the finest mystery writers of all time". In his obituary in the New York Times, he was described as "the dean of the... 'hard-boiled' school of detective fiction." Time magazine included Hammett's 1929 novel Red Harvest on its list of the 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005. His novels and stories also had a significant influence on films.

Early life

Hammett was born on a farm in Saint Mary's County, Maryland. His parents were Richard Thomas Hammett and Anne Bond Dashiell; his mother belonged to an old Maryland family, whose name in French was De Chiel. Sam, as he was known, was baptized a Catholic, and grew up in Philadelphia and Baltimore.

He left school when he was 13 years old and held several jobs before working for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. He served as an operative for Pinkerton from 1915 to February 1922, with time off to serve in World War I. However, the agency's role in union strike-breaking eventually disillusioned him.

Hammett enlisted in the Army in 1918 and served in the Motor Ambulance Corps. However, he became ill with the Spanish flu and later contracted tuberculosis. He spent most of his time in the Army as a patient at Cushman Hospital in Tacoma, Washington, where he met a nurse, Josephine Dolan, whom he later married.

Marriage and family

Hammett and Dolan had two daughters, Mary Jane (born 1921) and Josephine (born 1926). Shortly after the birth of their second child, Health Services nurses informed Dolan that due to Hammett's TB, she and the children should not live with him full-time. Dolan rented a home in San Francisco, California, where Hammett would visit on weekends. The marriage soon fell apart, but he continued to financially support his wife and daughters with the income he made from his writing.

Career and personal life

Hammett was first published in 1922 in the magazine The Smart Set. Known for the authenticity and realism of his writing, he drew on his experiences as a Pinkerton operative. Hammett wrote most of his detective fiction while he was living in San Francisco in the 1920s, and streets and other locations in San Francisco are frequently mentioned in his stories. He said that "All my characters were based on people I've known personally, or known about."

Raymond Chandler, often considered Hammett's successor, summarized his accomplishments in The Simple Art of Murder:

Hammett was the ace performer... He is said to have lacked heart; yet the story he himself thought the 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 can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.

In 1929 and 1930, he was romantically involved with Nell Martin, a writer of short stories and several novels. He dedicated The Glass Key to her, and in turn, she dedicated her novel Lovers Should Marry to him. In 1931, Hammett embarked on a 30-year affair with the playwright Lillian Hellman. Though he sporadically continued to work on material, he wrote his final novel in 1934, more than twenty-five years before his death. It is not certain why he moved away from fiction; Hellman speculated in a posthumous collection of Hammett's novels that "I think, but I only think, I know a few of the reasons: he wanted to do new kind of work, he was sick for many of those years and getting sicker."

Politics and service in World War II

Hammett devoted much of his life to left-wing activism. He was a strong anti-fascist throughout the 1930s and in 1937 joined the Communist Party. He suspended his anti-fascist activities when, as a member (and in 1941 president) of the League of American Writers, he served on its Keep America Out of War Committee in January 1940 during the period of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact.

In early 1942, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hammett again enlisted in the United States Army. He was a disabled veteran of World War I, a victim of tuberculosis, and a Communist, but he pulled strings in order to be admitted. He served as a sergeant in the Aleutian Islands, where he edited an Army newspaper. In 1943, still a member of the military, he co-authored The Battle of the Aleutians with Cpl. Robert Colodny, under the direction of an infantry intelligence officer, Major Henry W. Hall. While in the Aleutians he developed emphysema.

After the war, Hammett returned to political activism, "but he played that role with less fervor than before." He was elected President of the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) on June 5, 1946, at a meeting held at the Hotel Diplomat in New York City, and "devoted the largest portion of his working time to CRC activities".

In 1946, a bail fund was created by the CRC "to be used at the discretion of three trustees to gain the release of defendants arrested for political reasons." Those three trustees were Hammett, who was chairman, Robert W. Dunn, and Frederick Vanderbilt Field, "millionaire Communist supporter." On April 3, 1947, the CRC was identified as a Communist front group on the Attorney General's List of Subversive Organizations, as directed by U.S. President Harry S. Truman's Executive Order 9835.

Imprisonment and the blacklist

The CRC's bail fund gained national attention on November 4, 1949, when bail in the amount of "$260,000 in negotiable government bonds" was posted "to free eleven men appealing their convictions under the Smith Act for criminal conspiracy to teach and advocate the overthrow of the United States government by force and violence." On July 2, 1951, their appeals exhausted, four of the convicted men fled rather than surrender themselves to Federal agents and begin serving their sentences. The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York issued subpoenas to the trustees of the CRC bail fund in an attempt to learn the whereabouts of the fugitives.

Hammett testified on July 9, 1951, in front of United States District Court Judge Sylvester Ryan, facing questioning by Irving Saypol, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, described by Time as "the nation's number one legal hunter of top Communists". During the hearing, Hammett refused to provide the information the government wanted, specifically the list of contributors to the bail fund, "people who might be sympathetic enough to harbor the fugitives." Instead, on every question regarding the CRC or the bail fund, Hammett declined to answer, citing the Fifth Amendment, refusing to even identify his signature or initials on CRC documents the government had subpoenaed. As soon as his testimony concluded, Hammett was found guilty of contempt of court.

Hammett served time in a West Virginia federal penitentiary where, according to Lillian Hellman, he was assigned to clean toilets. Hellman noted in her eulogy of Hammett that he submitted to prison rather than reveal the names of the contributors to the fund because "he had come to the conclusion that a man should keep his word."

Later years and death

During the 1950s, Hammett was investigated by Congress. He testified on March 26, 1953, before the House Un-American Activities Committee about his own activities but refused to cooperate with the committee. No official action was taken, but his stand led to his being blacklisted, along with others who were blacklisted as a result of McCarthyism.

Hammett became an alcoholic before working in advertising and alcoholism continued to trouble him until 1948, when he quit after his doctor's orders. However, years of heavy drinking and smoking worsened the tuberculosis he contracted in World War I, and then according to Hellman "jail had made a thin man thinner, a sick man sicker ... I knew he would now always be sick."

Hellman wrote that during the 1950s Hammett became "a hermit", his decline evident in the clutter of his rented "ugly little country cottage", where "signs of sickness were all around: now the phonograph was unplayed, the typewriter untouched, the beloved foolish gadgets unopened in their packages." He may have meant to start a new literary life with the novel Tulip but left it unfinished, perhaps because he was "just too ill to care, too worn out to listen to plans or read contracts. The fact of breathing, just breathing, took up all the days and nights." Hammett could no longer live alone, and they both knew it, so he spent the last four years of his life with Hellman. "Not all of that time was easy, and some of it very bad", she wrote, but, "guessing death was not too far away, I would try for something to have afterwards."


Hammett died in Lenox Hill Hospital, in New York City, on January 10, 1961, of lung cancer, diagnosed just two months before. As a veteran of two world wars, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.


Hammett's relationship with Lillian Hellman was portrayed in the film Julia. Jason Robards won an Oscar for his depiction of Hammett, and Jane Fonda was nominated for her portrayal of Lillian Hellman.

Hammett was portrayed semi-fictionally as the protagonist in the film Hammett.



All the novels except The Thin Man were originally serialized in three, four, or five parts in various magazines.

Short fiction
  • "The Barber and His Wife", 1922
  • "The Parthian Shot", 1922
  • "The Great Lovers", 1922
  • "Immortality", 1922
  • "The Road Home", 1922
  • "The Master Mind", 1923
  • "The Sardonic Star of Tom Doody", 1923
  • "The Joke on Eoloise Morey", 1923
  • "Holiday", 1923
  • "The Crusader", 1923
  • "The Green Elephant", 1923
  • "The Dimple", 1923
  • "Laughing Masks", 1923
  • "Itchy", 1924
  • "Esther Entertains", 1924
  • "Another Perfect Crime", 1925
  • "Ber-Bulu", 1925
  • "The Advertising Man Writes a Love Letter", 1926–1930
  • "The House Dick", 1923–1926
  • "The Second-Story Angel", 1923–1926
  • "The Man Who Killed Dan Odams", 1923–1926
  • "Night Shots", 1923–1926
  • "Afraid of a Gun", 1923–1926
  • "Zigzags of Treachery", 1923–1926
  • "One Hour", 1923–1926
  • "Death on Pine Street", 1923–1926
  • "Tom, Dick, or Harry", 1923–1926
  • "The Assistant Murderer", 1923–1926
  • "The Gatewood Caper", 1923
  • "Nightmare Town", 1924
  • "The Tenth Clew", 1924
  • "The House in Turk Street", 1924
  • "The Girl with the Silver Eyes", 1924
  • "Dead Yellow Women", 1925
  • "The Gutting of Couffignal", 1925
  • "The Scorched Face", 1925
  • "Corkscrew", 1925
  • "The Whosis Kid", 1925
  • "Ruffian's Wife", 1925
  • "The Main Death", 1927
  • "The Big Knockover", 1927
  • "$106,000 Blood Money", 1927
  • "This King Business", 1928
  • "Fly Paper", 1929
  • "The Farewell Murder", 1930
  • "A Man Called Spade", 1932
  • "Too Many Have Lived", 1932
  • "They Can Only Hang You Once", 1932
  • "Two Sharp Knives", 1934
  • "His Brother's Keeper", 1934
  • "Night Shade", c. 1933
  • "This Little Pig", c. 1934
  • "A Man Called Thin", 1961
  • "The First Thin Man", n.d.
Collected short fiction
  • $106,000 Blood Money. Bestseller Mystery, 1943. A digest-sized paperback collection of two connected Continental Op stories, "The Big Knockover" and "$106,000 Blood Money".
  • Blood Money. Tower, 1943. Hardcover edition of the 1943 Bestseller Mystery title.
  • The Adventures of Sam Spade. Bestseller Mystery, 1944. Digest paperback collection of three Spade stories and four others. This and the following eight digest collections were compiled and edited by Frederic Dannay (one half of the writing partnership using the pseudonym Ellery Queen) with Hammett's permission. All of them were reprinted as Dell map-back paperbacks.
  • The Continental Op. Bestseller Mystery, 1945. Digest paperback collection of four Continental Op stories.
  • The Adventures of Sam Spade. Tower, 1945. Hardcover edition of the digest paperback of the same title. The last of the digests to be reprinted in hardcover.
  • The Return of the Continental Op. Jonathan Press, 1945. Digest paperback collection of five further Continental Op stories.
  • Hammett Homicides. Bestseller Mysteries, 1946. Digest paperback collection of six stories, four of which feature the Continental Op.
  • Dead Yellow Women. Jonathan Press, 1947. DIgest paperback collection of six stories, four of which feature the Continental Op.
  • Nightmare Town. American Mercury, 1948. Digest paperback collection of four stories, two of which feature the Continental Op.
  • The Creeping Siamese. American Mercury, 1950. Digest paperback collection of six stories, three of which feature the Continental Op.
  • Woman in the Dark. Jonathan Press, 1951. Digest paperback collection of six stories, three of which feature the Continental Op, and the three-part novelette Woman in the Dark.
  • A Man Named Thin. Mercury Mystery, 1962. The last digest paperback, a collection of eight stories, one of which features the Continental Op.
  • The Big Knockover. Random House, 1966. An important collection, edited by Lillian Hellman, which helped revive Hammett's literary reputation, including the unfinished novel Tulip.
  • The Continental Op. Random House, 1974. Edited by Steven Marcus.
  • Woman in the Dark. Knopf, 1988. Hardcover collection of the three parts of the title novelette, with an introduction by Robert B. Parker).
  • Nightmare Town. Knopf, 1999. Hardcover collection, with contents different from the digest of the same title.
  • Lost Stories. Vince Emery Productions, 2005. Collection of 21 stories not been previously publshed in hardcover, including some previously unpublished stories, with several long commentaries on Hammett's career providing context for the stories. Introduction by Joe Gores.
  • The Hunter and Other Stories. Mysterious Press, 2014. Collection of previously unpublished or uncollected stories and screenplays, including a fragment of a second Sam Spade novel. Edited by Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett.
  • "After the Thin Man", 1936
  • "Shadow of the Thin Man", 1941
  • "The Glass Key", 1942
  • "Watch on the Rhine", 1943
Other publications
  • Creeps by Night; Chills and Thrills. John Day, 1931. Anthology edited by Hammett.
  • Secret Agent X-9 Book 1. David McKay, 1934. Collection of the comic strip written by Hammett and illustrated by Alex Raymond.
  • Secret Agent X-9 Book 2. David McKay, 1934. A second collection of the comic strip.
  • The Battle of the Aleutians. Field Force Headquarters, Adak, Alaska, 1944. Text by Hammett, with illustrations by Robert Colodny.
  • Watch on the Rhine. Screenplay of Hellman's play (in Best Film Plays 1943–44, Crown, 1945) and the screenplay of Casablanca.
  • Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett: 1921–1960. Counterpoint Press, 2001. Edited by Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett.
  • Return of the Thin Man. Mysterious Press 2012. Screen treatments of After the Thin Man and Another Thin Man, edited by Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett.

Unpublished stories

In 2011, magazine editor Andrew Gulli found fifteen previously unknown short stories by Dashiell Hammett in the archives of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin.

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