DASHIELL HAMMETT is known chiefly for changing the contours of crime writing and lifting that genre to a literary level. Building on experience with Pinkerton's National Detective Service in Baltimore, Spokane and San Francisco and a year in the army in World War I, he began to write in 1922 and his last book, The Thin Man , appeared in 1934. All told, he published 60 short stories and five novels -- including The Maltese Falcon -- during those 12 years. His achievement was to make the realism of the alley as fresh as rain. Thereafter, until his death nearly 30 years later he contented himself with film and radio work, helping Lillian Hellman with her plays, a stint in the army in World War II, and a stay in a federal prison for political activity. Through these tumultuous times he was plagued by family and financial problems (despite making millions off his early work) and ill-health compounded by too many cigarettes and too much scotch.
In Shadow Man , blurbed as the first full-fledged biography of Hammett, Richard Layman begins by castigating biographers who infer and invent instead of sticking with facts. Fair enough. But he does so little with the material he uncovers on his elusive quarry that Hammett, who prized privacy, remains essentially as hidden as ever. When Layman announced in 1978 his intention to do a book on Hammett he was lucky enough to be given the research interviews worked up over several years by two other aspiring biographers. Unfortunately, he failed to reinterview these sources, and his source citations reflect fewer than 10 interviews conducted by himself. He even failed to use Lillian Hellman -- the person who certainly knew Hammett best -- to much advantage. Hellman, who says she was too close to Hammett to write a biography, has opened her files to Diane Johnson for an "authorized" life scheduled to emerge in 1982. Thus most of her papers and letters were not available to Layman. But he could have used the portrait of Hammett she drew in her memoris (especially in An Unfinished Woman ) but didn't. Instead, he attacks her, writing that the details of their 30-year life together have been clouded by her highly subjective accounts, even implying that she contributed to his decline as a writer and to his emergence as a Marxist ideologist.
Below the belt on all counts. Hellman's insights on Hammett may be subjective but are honorably honest, often to her own disadvantage, and certainly the best pictures we have of this complex man. And to ascribe his writing decline and radical activity to her is to betray an ignorance of the fiercely independent Hammett. She herself didn't know why he never wrote anything of value after The Thin Man , and Raymond Chandler's view, "I suppose he may have come to the end of his resources in a certain style and have lacked the intellectual depth to compensate for that by trying something else," tallied with Hammett's own statement in 1937, "It is the beginning of the end when you discover you have style." As for his political support of leftist causes, the private Hammett needed no prompting from Hellman.
Doubtless concerned to beat the Hellman-sponsored biography onto the streets, Laymon's prose is hurried and pedestrian. There is almost no analysis. Take the nobility attributed to Hammett by Hellman. Layman writes that he made and spent millions but doesn't tell us whether any of the money went to his family whom he deserted in 1929. Why and how did he enlist in World War II at age 48 with rotten teeth and lousy lungs? Layman hasn't a clue. Layman, who has composed a Hammett bibliography (1979), fails to include a list of works about his subject, and doesn't mention Peter Wolfe's competent analysis of Hammett's works in Beams Falling (1980), and has not thought to provide an index. As an approach to Hammett, his books falls considerably short of Willian Nolan's Dashiell Hammett : A Casebook (1969), and, as biography, is not in the same league with Frank MacShane's The Life of Raymond Chandler (1976).
Facts are fine but we live lives, not facts, and our existences can't be summed by statistics. Layman has confused chronology with biography. He has added bones and some flesh to the data skeleton, but his Hammett doesn't stand, much less move.