A life as hard-boiled as his fiction

In this extract from his new biography on the great crime fiction writer Dashiell Hammett, KEN FULLER charts a life of artistic highs and personal lows

DASHIELL HAMMETT is sometimes portrayed as a “Marxist writer,” usually by observers who are themselves not Marxists. The truth is that he was a Marxist and a writer — although not at the same time. Thus, Hammett’s work and politics are almost, but not quite, separate subjects.

What is often misidentified as an already developed Marxist outlook in some of the stories and the novels — particularly Red Harvest — is in fact nothing more than a deepening alienation from the corrupt society in which he lived.

This alienation led Hammett, an avowed atheist, into nihilism and despair, such that by the early 1930s he was flirting with suicide.

His darkening outlook had, along with his precarious medical condition, long led him into a life of reckless excess, drinking, gambling and womanising as if there were no tomorrow.

By the mid-1930s, he had completed all the stories and novels he would ever write. It was not merely that he had exhausted his material but because the corrupt society that had so revolted him was now in addition suffering the effects of the Great Depression.

And what could his usual protagonist, a lone private eye, possibly achieve in the face of such overwhelming odds? His fiction had nowhere to go, the world was meaningless, man powerless.

Ironically, it was the Depression that produced the factors giving rise to a new optimism in Hammett — not the mass unemployment and wage-cutting of employers but the resurgent US labour movement which combated them, nor the development of fascism in Europe, mimicked by the most reactionary circles in the US and elsewhere, but the upsurge of broad anti-fascist movements at home and abroad.

And then, in Hollywood of all places, he was introduced to Marxism, which drew these factors together and gave him a completely new way of looking at the world. Suddenly, life was no longer meaningless and Hammett threw himself into political activity. He would remain a Marxist for the rest of his life.

Along with a brief biographical sketch, there is a consideration of Hammett’s published work, including his magazine stories, his five novels and published screen stories.

The aims of the book are straightforward — to demonstrate, in considering Hammett’s published work, that it contains few, if any, traces of Marxism, to track his political development in the 1930s, providing an explanation of why he would have been attracted to what many, including some of his biographers and critics, would characterise as “Stalinism” and then show his continuing commitment throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

Finally it investigates why, despite the foregoing, he still failed to write. Along the way, there are occasional remarks regarding Hammett’s literary merits but, as I am not a literary critic, these are of secondary importance. There is, however, a separate chapter on Hammett’s contribution to some of the plays of Lillian Hellman, with whom he had a relationship spanning 30 years.

I attempt to unravel Hammett’s political trajectory and this necessitates a discussion of Hellman’s unreliable recollections on this subject.

At one stage I was ready to conclude, such was Hammett’s dissolute lifestyle, that while he was obviously committed to the international communist movement, he probably never became a formal member of the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA).

This view was strengthened by the suspicion that any communist party would have had second thoughts before admitting such a person into its ranks and by the fact that there seemed to be absolutely no concrete evidence that he had joined.

And then, in one of the most recent of his biographies, a small detail — probably of importance to no-one but me. He once showed his party membership card to his daughter Jo and this has been convincingly confirmed by Josephine Hammett Marshall, now 90, via her own daughter Julie Rivett. So, yes, Hammett did join the party.

Too often, those who write about Hammett either gloss over his political beliefs or attack them. Of course, such writers have every right to challenge political positions with which they disagree. But if this is all they do, they end up telling us more about themselves than they do about their subject and in a biography this rather defeats the object.

Another tactic, as if to “excuse” Hammett for his adoption of positions which the biographer or commentator finds unacceptable, is to imply that he must have been drunk at the time or that he was an innocent abroad, “duped” into following each and every CPUSA or Soviet policy turn. Quite simply, this was not Hammett.

I examine a number of positions for which he is attacked, placing them in context, correcting factual errors, and explaining them as they appeared to others at the time, and as they would have appeared to Hammett.

The book traces Hammett’s political activity in the postwar years, through his court appearance and prison term to his death in January 1961 and concludes by investigating the various reasons why Hammett was unable or unwilling to complete any fiction project after the mid-1930s, advancing possibilities not previously considered.

It becomes perfectly obvious that Hammett’s politics were as hardboiled as his fiction, hence the book’s title. I realise that in adopting this approach I run the risk of being dismissed as a “Stalinist” but I tend to agree with EH Carr in this regard. 

“Of course,” the esteemed historian of the Soviet revolution wrote in New Left Review in 1978, “I know that anyone who speaks of the achievements of the revolution will at once be branded as a Stalinist. But I am not prepared to submit to this kind of moral blackmail.”

Who was Dashiell Hammett?

“THE DEAN of the hard-boiled school of detective fiction” is how the New York Times described Dashiell Hammett following his death at the age of 66 in 1961.

The US author, regarded as one of the greatest crime fiction novelists, was also an accomplished short-story writer and screenwriter; although he never scripted any of the films based on his novels, one at least — The Maltese Falcon — is considered a Hollywood classic.

Hammett quit school aged 13 and after a series of jobs worked as an operative for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. 

With a break for army service, this lasted until 1922, when tuberculosis forced him to resign.

He then drew on his experiences as a Pinkerton operative for many of his stories for The Black Mask magazine and the authenticity and realism of his writing — much of it based in San Francisco, where he lived in the 1920s — soon drew recognition.

Despite his marriage to Josephine Dolan and the birth of two daughters, Hammett began a relationship with Lillian Hellman in late 1930 which lasted, in one form or another, until his death in 1961.

He wrote his final novel in 1934 and his failure to write much after this date is explored in Hardboiled Activist. 

Hammett was a left-wing activist throughout much of his life. A committed anti-fascist in the 1930s, he joined the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) in 1937.

After serving in WWII, Hammett returned to political activism. Elected President of the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) in 1946, he was one of the trustees of a bail fund created by the congress “to be used at the discretion of three trustees to gain the release of defendants arrested for political reasons.”

A year later, the CRC was identified as a communist front group and placed on the list of “subversive” organisations.

After three leading members of the CPUSA skipped bail, Hammett refused to identify bail fund donors and served a six-month prison sentence for contempt of court.

During the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s, Hammett was summoned to appear before Joseph McCarthy’s Senate subcommittee, where he refused to co-operate.

He was blacklisted with others as a result of McCarthyism and spent his remaining years in poverty, in part due to the demands of the tax authorities. 

Hammett, a chronic drunkard, quit drinking in 1948 but it had taken a toll on his health.

He remained a heavy smoker and in January 1961 died of lung cancer. Despite the efforts of J Edgar Hoover, as a veteran of two world wars Hammett was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

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