The ‘private eye,’ in the beginning: Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett knew what a private detective should be.

He knew because he had been one, and he had been taught by the very best.

Dashiell Hammett (watercolor, Jim Stovall, 2017)

Born in Maryland in 1894, Hammett had failed at most everything he tried in the first two decades of his life. Intelligent, tall, and handsome, he did not finish school, could not hold a good job, and had no real direction in his life until 1915. In that year, things began to change.

He became an agent for the Baltimore office of the  Pinkerton Private Detective Agency, and he was surprisingly good at it. Despite his height, he could tail a person all day long without being caught. He could write a terse, energetic report. Most important of all, he could listen and learn. It was at this point that he needed — and fortuitously received — a good teacher.

Heading up the Pinkerton’s Baltimore office was the legendary James Wright, who taught Hammett the “morality” of being a private detective. Some of the tenants of this morality were

— favor good people over bad ones, and try to protect the good people;

— don’t be bound by the rules, particularly if it prevents you from doing the right thing for the good people;

— don’t get emotionally involved with a case; don’t hate the criminals and bad people and don’t fall in love with the good ones;

— stay anonymous, and don’t seek publicity or credit; Pinkerton agents rarely if ever signed their reports;

— develop discipline and patience; Pinkertons might have to tail a suspect for weeks without faltering;

Hammett internalized all of these qualities, and although he did not always exhibit them in his personal life, he imbued his famous detectives, the Continental Op and Sam Spade, with them. These characters carried on tough, edgy conversations with clients and the people involved in their cases. The detectives never shied away from trouble. They could see people and situations for what they were, not for what others hoped them to be.

The Private Eye (watercolor by Jim Stovall)

In addition, Hammett wrote with a disciplined terseness that perfectly reflected the dark streets of San Francisco where his stories were set. His pitch-perfect dialogue not only put readers at the scene but also made them part of the conversation. Writer Raymond Chandler — whos work was deeply influenced by Hammett — wrote of Hammett:

“He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.”

* * * 

Hammett lived an eventful and difficult life that included a 30-year affair with writer Lillian Hellman, great wealth, abject poverty, a stint in prison for refusing to rat on his friends, and continuing bouts of tuberculosis, alcoholism, and other illnesses. He was born in 1894 and died in 1961.

It was his vision of the private detective — the “private eye” —  that inspired so many writers of his and subsequent generations.

For those of us who love what he did, he wrote too little and died too soon.

* * *

This post owes much of Prof. William Marling and his website, DetNovel.com, and particularly his entry on Dashiell Hammett.

See also:

Layman, Richard (1981). Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell HammettHarcourt Brace Jovanovich. p. 239. ISBN 0-15-181459-7.

Layman, Richard (ed.) 2001. With Rivett, Julie M., Introduction by Josephine Hammett Marshall. Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett 1921 – 1960 ISBN 1-58243-081-0, p. 142f

Johnson, Diane. (1983) Dashiell Hammett: A Life

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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