"Anything else is kind of piddling.” - Dashiell Hammett

27 May 1894, the American author Dashiell Hammett was born in Saint Mary's County, Maryland

“When you write, you want fame, fortune and personal satisfaction. You want to write what you want to write and feel it's good, and you want this to go on for hundreds of years. You're not likely ever to get all these things, and you're not likely to give up writing and commit suicide if you don't, but that is -- and should be -- your goal. Anything else is kind of piddling.” (Dashiell Hammett)

Dashiell Hammett*

Detective fiction was hardly a hundred years old, back in the 1920s, when the Golden Age of the genre began with the works of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. Based on Poe, Wilkie Collins and, of course, Arthur Conan Doyle, the genre already had become one of the most widely read categories of literature. However, the tales about Lord So-and-so who was the only one who could know about murdered Lady Such-and-such being deadly allergic to the bite of the Indian tea louse from the time they spent together at Simla and the whimsical detective and his faithful sidekick finding out about it by comparing different forms of cigar ash, the classical whodunits, were a bit remote from the reality of crime exploding in the Western World. A new school of crime fiction began to assert itself, first in pulp fiction magazines and later in full-fledged novels and Dashiell Hammett was to become its Dean.

The Continental Op, Dashiell Hammett’s otherwise nameless, podgy, middle-classed, middle-aged anti-hero struggling with his humanity and his own peculiar code of honour, working on cases involving completely corrupt police shops, murdering magistrates and a whole dramatis personae with their own shady agendas was a far cry from the gentlemen geniuses solving crimes in surroundings where the lower classes acted as colourful curiosities at best. And Hammett’s style of writing, laconic, terse, full of black humour and quite realistic, describing the dark underbelly of the United States, soon to be known as “hard-boiled”, opened up a whole new venue for fiction and his “Maltese Falcon” is still counted among the hundred best American novels of the 20th century, regardless of crime and pulp fiction.

Cover of the September 1929 issue of the pulp magazine "Black Mask",
featuring the "Maltese Faclon" for the first time.

Working a few years as field operative for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, masquerading as Continental Detective Agency in his stories, Dashiell Hammett was one of the few crime fiction writers who actually had first had experience of the topic he was writing about. He left the Pinkertons, who, usually quite tight-lipped, never publicly acknowledged or denied having had Hammett on their payroll, because of his failing health and their role as strike breakers in the 1920s. Hammett always was dallying with communism, a love-hate-relationship that finally broke his back in the McCarthy Era after 10 years of writing classics of crime fiction and a period of writer’s block and alcohol abuse in the days when a martini before breakfast was de rigueur anyway and he never managed to steer away from the hard-boiled genre he had created to writing novels like Fitzgerald and Hemingway like he always wanted to.

* The caricature of Dashiell Hammett in “film noir” outfit, carrying his fabulous creation, the Maltese Falcon, was found on:


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