(excerpt from chapter 6 “Reds,” Ivie and Giner, Hunt the Devil)

Dashiell Hammett, 1894-1961. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Dashiell Hammett, 1894-1961. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In the 1920s and early 30s, Dashiell Hammett transformed American detective fiction. Hammett joined the Pinkerton’s Detective Agency in 1915. During World War I he contracted pulmonary tuberculosis (an ailment that would plague him throughout his life) in the army during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. Discharged honorably from the military in poor health, Hammett moved to San Francisco where he quit detective work and wrote short stories that were published in H.L. Mencken’s The Smart Set and Black Mask.

Between 1927 and 1933, Hammett wrote the five novels that constitute–along with his Continental Op short stories–his main body of work. In the mid-1930s he lent his active support, along with other American intellectuals, to the anti-fascist (Loyalist) cause in the Spanish Civil War. At the height of his career at age 48 (shortly after the release of John Huston’s film of The Maltese Falcon), he re-joined the army as a private during World War II. By this time, the FBI considered him “to be among the upper echelon of the Communist Party in the United States.”[1]

Poster for "The Maltese Falcon," 1941. (Credit:  Warner Bros. / Wikimedia Commons)

Poster for “The Maltese Falcon,” 1941. (Credit: Warner Bros. / Wikimedia Commons)

Hammett was a Marxist by his own admission, an ex-strike-breaker for Pinkerton who came to believe that “nothing less than a revolution could wipe out the corruption” in U.S. society, and a sharp critic of the Soviet Union and the American Communist Party who remained in the end–according to his life-long friend Lillian Hellman–“loyal to them.” In 1946, he was elected president of the Civil Rights Congress of New York, an organization that maintained a bail fund for the release of defendants in political trials.[2] In 1949, four defendants convicted under the Smith Act for “criminal conspiracy to teach and advocate the overthrow of the United States government by force,” jumped their bail (secured by the CRC) and failed to surrender to federal authorities. As chair of the committee of trustees who administered the fund, Hammett was called to testify before the South District Court of New York.[3] Firmly and repeatedly, Hammett invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer questions.

"The Thin Man" theatrical release poster, 1934. (Credit:  Wikimedia Commons)

“The Thin Man” theatrical release poster, 1934. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The night before his sentencing, he explained his stance to Hellman: “I hate this damn kind of talk, but . . . if it were more than jail, if it were my life, I would give it for what I think democracy is and I don’t let cops or judges tell me what I think democracy is.” When asked by the judge if he had anything to say, Hammett replied: “Not a thing.” Like Giles Corey from another age and in a previous court, he stood mute before his examiners. He was sentenced to six months in prison for contempt of court. Hammett’s health never recovered from his stint in jail. He died in 1961.[4]

A long line of artistic luminaries like Hammett (especially Hollywood actors, screenwriters, and directors) were investigated for Communist ties by HUAC in the 1950s. Garry Wills explained the source of HUAC’s power: “The Red-hunters were so dangerous precisely because they considered themselves saviors of the country from a diabolical plot.”[5]

[1] Titles and publication dates of Hammett’s novels are: Red Harvest (1927), The Dain Curse (1928), The Maltese Falcon (1929), The Glass Key (1930) and The Thin Man (1933); Richard Layman, Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Publishers, 1981), 181.

[2] Layman, 203; Lillian Hellman, Scoundrel Time (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1976), 50; Hellman, “Introduction,” in Dashiell Hammett, The Big Knockover: Selected Stories and Short Novels (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), xii.

[3] Layman, 219; “Hammett’s full testimony before United States Second District Court Judge Sylvester Ryan, July 9, 1951, in New York City,” Appendix, in Layman, 259.

[4] Hellman, “Introduction,” in Hammett, x; Layman, 260.

[5] Garry Wills, “Introduction,” in Hellman, Scoundrel Time, 31-32.


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