How Dashiell Hammett Invented The Modern Detective Novel
The mysterious femme fatale. The tough private eye who seeks justice at any cost. The rare object worth killing for. Dashiell Hammett coined all of these classic elements of noir fiction with his 1930 breakthrough novel The Maltese Falcon. But how did Hammett dream up this dark, new world of literature? By writing from experience.
In the 1920s, American fiction desperately needed its own private detective. It was overrun with Sherlock Holmes imitators–erudite puzzle solvers who refused to get their hands dirty. Enter Dashiell Hammett, a former private investigator turned writer. In The Maltese Falcon, Hammett took the detective out of the drawing room, dumped him in a dark alley and created an American classic in the process.
Lauded upon publication for its lean prose and how it captured the sex and violence of urban America, The Maltese Falcon has soared to greater critical heights with each passing decade. Hammett’s descendant Raymond Chandler praised the book for “scenes that seemed never to have been written before.” And Ross McDonald called it “the greatest mystery novel ever.”
Why did The Maltese Falcon seem so raw and genuine compared to other mystery novels of the time? Because Dashiell Hammett really was a detective. Born in 1894, Hammett quit school at age 14 to help earn money for his family. After a string of low-paying jobs, he became an operative with San Francisco’s Pinkerton Detective Agency. There he adopted the code that deeply influenced his life: Create a barrier between yourself and the rest of the world.
As an investigator, Hammett tailed drug smugglers and shadowed unfaithful spouses. He once even tracked down a stolen Ferris wheel. But when World War I erupted, Hammett took a break from agency life and joined the Army.
Shortly after arriving in France to begin his service, Hammett contracted chronic tuberculosis. And when he returned to the States to recuperate, he wasn’t the same. He found himself increasingly at odds with the Pinkerton assignments, which often involved breaking up strikes and infiltrating labor unions. Plus, the TB made it difficult to continue full-time work. With a wife and child to support, Hammett needed a new profession, and because he’d always been a fan of detective stories, he decided to try his hand at writing. To his delight, he sold one of his first tales, “The Road Home,” to a pulp magazine called Black Mask. The editor praised Hammett’s flair for gritty realism. But Hammett was only following advice he’d gotten from a journalism class: Write what you know.
Two novels and several short stories later, Hammett was a staple of the pulps. Still, he had higher aspirations. As he wrote to his editor in 1928, “Someday somebody’s going to make literature out of detective stories, and I’m selfish enough to have my hopes.”
In 1930, Hammett’s dream was realized with The Maltese Falcon. A popular hit, the novel went through five printings in its first year alone. By 1934, it had earned Hammett more than $80,000 in royalties, a huge sum in Depression-era America. Meanwhile, the novel catapulted Hammett into new literary circles and earned him comparisons to Ernest Hemingway.
The story opens with a now-textbook device: An alluring damsel in distress named Miss Wonderly visits the office of Sam Spade and his partner, Miles Archer. She’s come to San Francisco in search of her sister, who ran off with a man named Floyd Thursby. Spade and Archer take her case, but when Archer turns up dead that night, Spade suspects a set-up.
The plot thickens when a soft-spoken man named Joel Cairo offers Spade $5,000 to find a missing object, a statuette of a falcon. Before Spade agrees to help, Cairo pulls a gun on him and demands to search his office, believing that Miss Wonderly has left the falcon in Spade’s care. Spade knocks Cairo out cold, and there begins the “mess of a case” where nothing is as it seems.
In Hammett’s narrative, we’re never told what Spade is thinking. We get only his “tight smiles” and “narrowed yellow eyes” as he lights one more hand-rolled cigarette and tosses back another straight-up cocktail. Riding shotgun through the fistfights and tangled sheets, we discover each clue as it’s found, reaching our conclusions along with Spade. It’s this kind of virtual sleuthing that helped Hammett reinvent the detective novel.
International Man of Mystery
Spade was the James Bond of his era. Tough, smoldering, and committed to his job above all else (“I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble,” Spade famously says in the novel). Women wanted him, and men wanted to be him. Hammett called him “a dream man,” and thanks to The Maltese Falcon and its best-selling follow-ups The Glass Key and The Thin Man, Hollywood came calling.
With money and fame, Hammett became his own twisted version of the “dream man.” He divorced his wife and cut loose as a notorious rake. He drank, gambled and womanized, burning a reckless path through the 1930s. He lost friends, then bought them back with lavish gifts. He alienated publishers and producers, all the while promising that his next novel was coming soon.
"I don't mind a reasonable amount of trouble." -Sam Spade
But it wasn’t. After 1934, Dashiell Hammett never wrote another book.
The end of Hammett’s career remains a mystery. At times, he told colleagues that he’d only been interested in the money, and once he got rich, he had no impulse to tell more stories. Other times, he confessed to developing “stage fright.” He started three more novels then abandoned them. As a kind of penance, he’d sit at his typewriter, staring out the window and drinking himself into oblivion. Friends and family tried to help him quit boozing and start writing again, but he kept them at a distance. The Pinkerton code held strong.
For Hammett, the Falcon became an albatross, the book against which all of his work–and life—was compared. He came to loathe the hard-boiled style he’d created, calling it “a menace.” Meanwhile, many paperback detectives were created in Sam Spade’s image–from Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer to Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch–and on screen, such film and TV investigators as “Dirty” Harry Callahan and Jack Bauer. The Maltese Falcon was made into a movie three times, and the 1941 version starring Humphrey Bogart became a film noir classic.
During the ‘40s and ‘50s, Hammett’s life took another tragic turn. As an avowed communist and a member of the Civil Rights Congress (CRC)–an organization devoted to supporting civil liberties–Hammett was an easy target for Senator Joe McCarthy’s witch hunt. In 1951, Hammett served six months in prison for contempt of court during a case involving the CRC. Two years later, he was blacklisted for refusing to offer a full testimony before the House of Un-American Activities Committee.
The effect on his career was devastating. Hammett’s novels suddenly went out of print, libraries banned his books, and newspaper editorials viciously attacked his personal and political views. He hit rock bottom when the IRS slammed him with a $180,000 bill for unpaid taxes. Hammett never recovered from these blows, dying a penniless recluse in 1961. After his death, the IRS auctioned the rights to all of his novels and short stories. The lone bidder was Lillian Hellman, his longtime friend and lover, who secured the entire library for a paltry $5,000.
Today, The Maltese Falcon is recognized as the classic that set the bar for crime fiction. The board of the Modern Library voted it one of the Best 100 Novels of the 20th Century. No matter how tragic Hammett’s life became, it can’t be forgotten that he achieved his one burning desire—to turn detective stories into great literature.
- BIRDWATCHING The precious object that everyone in Hammett’s novel is searching for was, in fact, a real bejeweled statuette. In 1539, Charles V of Spain gave the island of Malta to the Brothers Hospitallers of St. John, a Catholic order that cared for the sick and poor. To pay tribute to King Charles, the Hospitallers sent him a gold statuette of a falcon, encrusted with jewels. But pirates seized the ship carrying the falcon to Spain, and the bird vanished for centuries. Then in 1911, the falcon was spotted in a Paris junk shop, painted over with black enamel. It quickly disappeared again, prompting a murderous game of international hide-and-seek. Today, its whereabouts are still unknown. As for the statue featured in The Maltese Falcon movie, that one’s thoroughly accounted for. Or at least it was until recently. In 1994, a restaurant owner named John Konstin purchased it at an auction for $400,000, making it–at the time–the most expensive movie prop ever sold. Konstin owns John’s Grill, a 100-year old San Francisco eatery with a museum dedicated to former customer Dashiell Hammett. In 2007, the falcon statue, along with some rare editions of Hammett’s fiction, was stolen from the restaurant. Despite a thorough police investigation and Konstin’s $25,000 reward, the falcon was never recovered. Konstin later commissioned sculptor Peter Schifrin to recreate the falcon, and that statue is now perched in a high security glass case in John’s Grill.