Nathan Ward’s The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett is a great look at the early and productive life of the father of hard boiled fiction. We got a hold of Nathan to talk about the book and his subject.
MysteryPeople Scott: What drew you to Hammett’s early years?
Nathan Ward: I came to write this book because it did not yet exist and I wanted to read something about what kind of detective had Hammett been before he wrote some of the iconic detective books of the 20th century; the best reason to write something is, as Thomas Berger answered when asked why he wrote novels, “Because it isn’t there.”
Hammett has what in comic books is called an origins story: once a real-life detective, he nearly died from Tuberculosis, then while flat on his back with the disease he began sending out crime stories. The rest is supposedly history. I wanted to test this myth and find out more about his incredible transition, especially to learn what kind of real detective he had been, if possible.
“My theory was that if I focused primarily on the formative years, did a sort of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Pinkerton, I would have room enough to explore his unique transition.”
The various biographies over the years have had so much else to cover between his birth, early family life, fame and boozing, imprisonment and death, that they could only devote a few pages at most to this important but murky period in his life as a Pinkerton. My theory was that if I focused primarily on the formative years, did a sort of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Pinkerton, I would have room enough to explore his unique transition. When he stopped publishing books in the mid-1930s my story would end. Although it made less of a scoop for my book, I was impressed to learn that the myth had been basically true, while individual stories he told were sometimes lore.
MPS: Besides authenticity, what else did his stint as a Pinkerton give to his writing?
NW: In addition to giving him a subject, working for the Pinkerton Agency taught Hammett how to study people and, of course, it attuned his ear to street slang and criminal nicknames, later giving us recognizable characters such as the Dis-and-Dat Kid, “who had crushed out of Leavenworth only two months before” and Snohomish Whitey, “supposed to have died a hero in France in 1919.” These are not much of a stretch compared to the colorful crooks Pinkerton ops were encouraged to collect for their working files. The Pinkerton method of “assimilating” namelessly among the criminal class could not have been further from the Sherlock Holmes genius style of crime-fighting, and it turned out to be how crimes were actually solved.
Also, because the operatives had to submit reports that were often edited by their supervisors, the Pinkerton job taught Hammett about writing itself, not unlike the way a cub reporter gets schooled at a newspaper. And he saw some of the world, or at least the underworld, while traveling around as an operative. The kind of crime story Hammett invented in the early twenties, I argue, evolved directly from the style and form of those dozens of operative reports he wrote first; he just transformed it from a species of company memo into literature, although he might not have liked that word.
MPS: One thing that you covered, that many of his biographers have glossed over, is his time in advertising. What importance did that period serve?
NW: I was just as puzzled by how he became a writer as by how he then could take a break from it. In both cases the answer may have been mostly economic: He first sent out stories for extra money, and he began working for Albert Samuels to make much more money for his young family.
Hammett was not a college man. He left school at 14 to help his family. He did not approach the working world with the cynicism some of better-educated writers: Advertising was just another challenging way of working with words, which he found he was good at, and he gave it his all when he found he could not support his family on just his stories and disability pension. If his health had not crashed, he might have gone on a few more years as a successful ad man. But, most practically for his literary career, this experience introduced him to his wonderful boss, the jeweler Albert Samuels, who forgave Hammett his excessive drinking during the workday as long as he produced, and became a kind of benefactor, making him the loan that Hammett used to move to New York in 1929. He dedicated his second novel, ‘To Albert S. Samuels.’
MPS: What was the most surprising thing you discovered in your research?
NW: The most fun I had in researching was also the most surprising—the days I spent in the Pinkerton archive in Washington DC, sifting through hundreds of actual op reports, log books, office memos, mug shots, and agency wanted posters. While it was a well-known sad fact that no one had ever turned up Hammett’s actual Pinkerton reports (They may have been kept by the clients, or lost in a fire, or both) reading the many by others on file gave me a vivid idea of just the kind of work he would have been doing for the agency. It was easier to imagine him as an op when I read what these guys typically did, and got to know the report form he jumped off from to create his stories with his fictional Continental Op.
MPS: If there was only one Hammett you could suggest to understand both the man and writer, which one would it be?
NW: I learned the most about Hammett when I read his stories. His biographer Rick Layman had advised me to read Hammett’s stories in the order he wrote them as a way of understanding how a man could teach himself to write and do it so well. Therefore, I would recommend the Lib. Of America collection Hammett: Crime Stories & Other Writings to watch Sam Hammett, sickly ex-Pinkerton, become Dashiell Hammett, great American detective novelist.
“The kind of crime story Hammett invented in the early twenties, I argue, evolved directly from the style and form of those dozens of operative reports he wrote first; he just transformed it from a species of company memo into literature, although he might not have liked that word.”
Of the novels, obviously The Maltese Falcon is the most famous and most beautiful to read. It also contains the visual style that later influenced Film Noir. (His early description of Sam Spade rolling a cigarette is one of my favorite paragraphs in all his work.) But Hammett’s own favorite novel was The Glass Key, which stars a tubercular political fixer with a gambling problem, in a town very like Hammett’s own Baltimore. And that tells you something about him that he favored this one. It was his attempt to write a political novel rather than another straight-up detective novel, but the protagonist still ends up investigating a murder, so it’s not as far from his others as he may have hoped. But it’s really good. My own favorite may be Red Harvest, his first, which is bleak and bloody as well as very funny. It has so much energy and he was still full of street knowledge from his Pinkerton service. But I can be talked into re-reading any of them.
MPS: What do you think is more incredible, the output of work he did in the short period of work in the time you cover or the lack of published work in the decades that followed?
NW: I have never thought he owed an explanation to anyone for not publishing in later years. How many writers can match what he did writing those five novels (Red Harvest, Dain Curse, Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, and The Thin Man) between 1929-34?
He just couldn’t finish later works to the high standard he had established: He also wanted to be considered not a mystery or detective writer but a ‘real’ novelist like Hemingway, who also wrote about tough guys but was not considered a genre writer by critics. This led Hammett into kinds of writing he wasn’t as suited for.
I started doing this book as a work of restoration—everyone now saw Hammett through the sad lens Lillian Hellman had put over him in her memoirs, of a silvery mentor/companion who used to write books, when in fact she missed most of his active career and only saw him write The Thin Man first hand. The mystery of Hammett had become why he stopped instead of how did he become a writer in the first place. The story of what he’d done before the celebrated decline had languished under Hellman’s telling. I wanted to see how he accomplished all that he did—as a Pinkerton shadow man and then as a writer of peerless crime stories– in the crowded years before Lillian met him one night at a Hollywood party, when Hammett was already famous and 36 years old. To my mind, she came in pretty late in his story. It was those first 35 years I became interested in.
You can find copies of The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.