Uncovering Dashiell Hammett

in Culture/History by
   

With the death of Lillian Hellman in 1984, biographers freed from her threatens of lawsuits and blocked access to primary sources, were finally able to mount a considerable archaeological effort regarding Dashiell Hammett. As a result, they have been able to track down his letters, his screen treatments, and the unpublished stories he wrote or re-wrote or abandoned altogether. With these two collections, The Return of the Thin Man and The Hunter and Other Stories, the well has finally run dry.

This begs the question as to whether all this effort was worth it. The immediate answer is yes. As the author of two masterpieces of the detective genre and fiction in general, The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key, Hammett’s other writings merit study. With them, there is a potential for looking at his development toward these works, and what he intended to write in their aftermath. The long range answer is also yes. Intensely private, his life obscured by Lillian Hellman’s mythification, he let behind some mysteries previously undispelled.

Hammett never revealed to readers or even his close friends the reason such an intelligent man would robotically support every cynical twist and turn of Joseph Stalin’s policies. Nor did he give clues as to why he stopped publishing novels after 1934.

Regarding the issue of politics, we can at least know, courtesy of Joan Mellen, that Hammett supported the Soviet effort till his death. Not even in Kruschev’s secret speech from 1956, in which he denounced the Purge Trials Hammett supported as rigged, shook Hammett’s faith.

On the issue of why he stopped writing, previously biographers, in the absence of The Return and The Hunter were forced to speculate. They argued either that Hammett had exhausted the detective genre, and was unwilling to meet the demands of emotional honesty required by other forms of literature or that he had expended so much energy in launching and maintaining Hellman’s career that there was nothing left over for his work.

We’ll never know whether he wrote or co-wrote or merely edited Hellman’s plays, but now the issue of why he stopped can be answered: he didn’t. In the words of his daughter Jo, “he didn’t stop publishing; he merely stopped finishing.” She was primarily basing this statement on his on-again, off-again work on the autobiographical Tulip, which didn’t see the light of day until 1965, four years after his death.

But Hammett did finish on a number of occasions, and the unearthed results — collected for the first time in The Return of The Thin Man and The Hunter and Other Stories — reveal that he was willing to display a greater range.

A common misconception about the 1934 film adaption of his last novel, The Thin Man, was that it was lifted en masse from his novel. As such, Hammett has been credited with mixing screwball comedy with the mystery genre, when, as a matter of fact, the credit belongs to the screenwriting team of Francis Goodrich and Albert Hackett.

When MGM bought the rights to the novel and put the film out the same year, the screenwriters were confronted with source material that was hardly screwball. In the novel, Nick and Nora had an open marriage. He’s depicted disappearing with a redhead to show her his “etchings,” while she mooned over someone else’s husband. Moreover both were cold-hearted characters. To leaven such material, the screenwriters transformed the union into a fun but loyal one, and with the addition of Powell and Loy, the characters became warmhearted.

When tasked with writing two sequels, Hammett revealed that he adhere to these changes. In the first treatment, The Return of the Thin Man, Hammett displayed a hither known talent for screwball humor. His wisecracks, such as Nick asking the butler of his in-laws if this was “the waxworks,” and holding forth with snoring old men — “would you mind going over that point again?” — were lifted verbatim into the film.

A lot was going on in Hammett’s life in the period between 1935 and 1938, none of which aided writing for fun and warmhearted characters. He was committed to a sanitarium for gonorrhea, alcoholism, and nervous exhaustion. Seeking some stability, he joined the American Communist Party in 1937, mindlessly cranking out agitprop. He served on the board of the Screen Writers’ Guild, the bete noir of closed shop MGM, and was trying to quit drinking — not the best time to be writing for the alcoholic Nick. Fearing for his sanity, he was hospitalized for neurosis.

None of this seemingly affected his first effort after The Thin Man (1936). He even avoided the easy motivation of greed for the killer, played by a young Jimmy Stewart, but instead opted for rejection by the woman he loved. By the time of Another Thin Man (1939), Hammett’s emotional exhaustion was evident. Although the wisecracks were still fresh, he had fallen back on the lazy trick of having the criminal kill because his dreams told him he should.

Still, that Hammett could write for these characters was amazing, given that he hated them — he once described them as “insufferably smug.” Within three years of their cinematic debut, he would sell all character rights to MGM.

But for those who would confine Hammett’s ability to show emotion to this period, the earlier stories in The Hunter show that it was always there. In this collection, Hammett shows a feminine side he tapped into when writing about male-female relationships. Unlike the “murderous bitches” of his detective stories, women came off better than men in The Hunter. Hammett could also write movingly of self-sacrifice. In On The Way (1932), a thinly-veiled account of his mentoring of Hellman showing he was willing to step out of the limelight once she achieved literary success.

Present also are his trademark coldhearted detective stories.

In the last known Sam Spade story, he was able to contain a mystery and emphasize Spade’s cynical nature and dreamy, almost erotic love of fisticuffs in only seven pages in a remarkable example of conciseness. Had he continued to write mysteries even if they might have been shorter, but they were still sporting character studies.

The mysteries surrounding Hammett’s life are beginning to be dispelled, and he stands revealed as much more sensitive than the macho figure he presented to the world.