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Archive for the ‘The Lost Detective’ Category

While there have numerous biographies of Dashiell Hammett, TheLostDetectivenone of them try to relate his writing to his Pinkerton detective days. Until now, that is. In The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett, Nathan Ward’s primary goal is to describe how being a Pinkerton shaped Hammett’s writing. While there is some general biographical data, the majority of the book is dedicated to Pinkerton.

DashiellHammettWard describes how Pinkerton had a standard, concise format for reports that detectives filed, which infiltrated into Hammett’s fictional writing. He also discusses both cases that Hammett might have been on as well as ones he would have heard about, which also impacted his writing.

It appears that all Pinkerton files relating to Hammett have disappeared, so much of Ward’s descriptions and conclusions are suppositions. But that doesn’t negatively impact the story he is telling.

Ward spends a good deal of time trying to determine who Hammett’s ContOpunnamed Continental Op detective  and his boss are based on. Hammett himself varies the story, at times saying the boss is James Wright (which is actually a name regularly used as an alias by operatives themselves) or a composite of several people. Ward speculates that the model for the Boss is James McParland, head of the agency’s Western division who apparently resembles the man Hammett describes as the Boss, “A tall, plump man in his seventies, this boss of mine, with a white-mustached, baby-pink, grandfatherly face, mild blue eyes behind rimless spectacles, and no more warmth in him than a hangman’s rope.”

TheThinManHe also speculates on the source of the Thin Man, portrayed by William Powell with Myrna Loy as his wife. He makes note that the dog was changed from a schnauzer in the book to a terrier in the film.

Ward provides many interesting morsels of Hammett’s life. He touches on Hammett’s relationship with his wife and with Lillian Hellman. He talks about Hammett’s contracting tuberculosis during World War II and how that affected him.

However, it is the snippets of his writing that make this great book even more worthwhile. Each chapter starts with a quote from a letter or book, such as this from Hammett in 1929, “I decided to become a writer. It was a good idea. Having had no experience whatever in writing, except writing letters and reports, I wasn’t handicapped by exaggerated notions of the difficulties ahead.” There are samples of Hammet’s writing, footnotes at the bottom of most pages, extensive notes and a selected bibliography, so Ward really did his work. At a mere 168 pages (before addendums), it’s a fast read. But you might want to slow down and savor it.

I’ll leave you with this 1934 quote from Hammett, for all you budding novelists, “The contemporary novelist’s job is to take pieces of life and arrange them on paper. And the more direct their passage from street to paper, the more lifelike they should be.” I think we can say Hammett mastered his craft.

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