The Life of Dashiell Hammett

Like most books on Dashiell Hammett now, I was broadly aware of the contents of this volume before reading it. I had read a review of it written only a few years after it was published in 1983 – pretty well my whole lifetime ago. It was the last “major” biography written, after William Nolan’s oft-cited Dashiell Hammett: A Casebook and Richard Layman’s foundational Shadow Man, neither of which I have yet read, but both of which I own and are on my pile.

I started with the last biography based on the advice of my supervisor to work backwards in time with my reading – hitherto I had worked forwards in time, because it’s a bit easier to join a conversation at the beginning. I knew, going in, that it was not purported to be a work of high scholarship, but that she had access to documents neither Nolan nor Layman had, from the private collection of Lillian Hellman, Hammett’s great love. The vernacular and novelistic approach to the biography was intended to be gripping and easy to read, but I found the constant segueing of perspective and the pliability of past/present/future tenses to be irritating.

The thing about a biography of Hammett is that he did most of his living after he did most of his writing. His last substantial work was The Thin Man, written around 1932 – 30 years before he died, and years before his pro-Communist leanings created his notoriety. So, the bulk, the vast meat of his very interesting personal life, comes at a point where he is no longer engaged in the creative process. After the first quarter of the biography, you can draw a quick and easy conclusion that the change in style and tone between the Glass Key and The Thin Man is due to his entanglement with Hellman+Hollywood (apportioning credit or blame as you see fit)… but the temptation is then to reverse-engineer the usual process, and see echoes of his later life in his earlier works.

I myself feel pretty well like I know all that I want to about the life of Hammett; I feel entirely less like I know all I want to about the books he wrote and why and how they work. Two more biographies to go, though because I own those rather than interborrow them, I think I’ll take a break from biography.

More, doubtless, in the future, on the life of Hammett himself. Which, as I say, is so perfectly interesting that when I was explaining it to my office mate, she opined that he had written his books as a preparation for his life.

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