Today in Literary History – January 10, 1961 – Dashiell Hammett, the great detective novelist, dies

The great mystery and detective novelist Dashiell Hammett died from lung cancer on January 10, 1961, at the age of sixty-six. He had been living a mostly reclusive life for the past decade.

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His health was so poor that he needed full time care and Lillian Hellman, with whom he’d had a 30 year romance despite his marriages, moved in with him for the last four years of his life.

Hammett had quit drinking in 1948 but continued to suffer from the tuberculosis that he had contracted in World War I.

He had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era and spent five months in prison for refusing to “name names” when testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee. His time in prison also took a toll on his health.

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Hammett’s writing heyday was in the 1920s and thirties, when he wrote numerous detective stories (mostly for the “pulp fiction” magazine Black Mask and often featuring his nameless character “the Continental Op”) and the novels that would make him famous, especially The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man.

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Prior to his writing career Hammett had been a detective with the Pinkerton Agency and his experiences there helped him with his plots and character motivations. Nathan Ward, who wrote a really good book about Hammett’s Pinkerton days wrote that the real benefit from his time as a detective came from writing his summaries for head office:

“If anything taught Hammett to write pithily and with appreciation for the language of street characters it was not discovering an early Hemingway story in the Transatlantic Review, but doing his scores of operative reports for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.”

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Hammett ushered in a new style of writing in detective fiction, often known as “hard boiled,” with terse, world-weary sentences. His style translated well to the big screen, and Humphrey Bogart immortalized Hammet’s Same Spade in the film version of The Maltese Falcon in 1941.

Hammett’s style also influenced many later detective novelists, from Raymond Chandler to James Ellroy.

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