Though Dashiell Hammett’s career and reputation steadily declined in the quarter-century before his death in 1961, the author and his work have enjoyed several resurgences of interest in the years since. The 1966 collection “The Big Knockover,” edited by Lillian Hellman, his longtime lover and literary executor, introduced “Tulip,” Hammett’s abandoned attempt at a sixth novel. The early 1980s saw the publication of no fewer than three major biographies — by Richard Layman, Diane Johnson and William F. Nolan — and two books in the late 1990s and mid-2000s gathered previously uncollected stories for fresh audiences. Then, in 2012, Layman joined Hammett’s granddaughter Julie M. Rivett to present “The Return of the Thin Man,” a collection of Hammett’s screen treatments with another round of unpublished and uncollected stories. Now British scholar Sally Cline has written the first biography of Hammett in three decades.
One of the most prolific and distinguished contributors to Black Mask Magazine, Hammett produced five novels between 1929 and 1934 — including “Red Harvest,” “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Thin Man,” landmark titles in the evolution of crime fiction — before suffering creative blocks that followed him to his grave. He was a hard drinker and a womanizer. He was plagued by tuberculosis and other health issues. Despite his long marriage, he carried on a tumultuous relationship with Hellman and mentored her growth as a writer. He was a self-proclaimed Marxist, served a prison sentence for contempt of court related to his political activities and was further uncooperative during congressional testimony in the thick of the McCarthy era.
Of course, any new biography stands or falls on whatever fresh perspectives it offers. But while Cline’s entry promises much, the end result proves uneven — a compacted biographical narrative crosscut with snippets of memoir, brief bursts of literary analysis and frequent excursions into armchair psychology.
For example, though Cline boasts new interviews with Hammett’s family members, quotes from Hammett’s daughter Jo resemble awkwardly inserted sound bites: A sense of her father’s “deep love of farming, fishing, and hunting,” a quick paragraph about how Hammett had wanted a son when she was born, a brief memory of Hellman being “bitchy” to her at a swimming pool — none of this is very illuminating.
Though Cline has studied short stories that were only recently made available to the public, she incorporates them weakly, for example simply listing every reference to eyes as part of her claim that Hammett somehow adopted the Pinkerton detective agency’s famous eyeball logo as his own. She draws on her own unfinished scholarly manuscript for a short paragraph comparing Hellman’s play “The Children’s Hour” to the work of English novelist Radclyffe Hall, the subject of one of Cline’s other biographies. She examines the loops and the “Greek E” of Hellman’s penmanship to prove that the last four paragraphs of the unfinished “Tulip” don’t match Hammett’s choices for the manuscript.
Elsewhere, playing psychologist, she devotes nearly a full paragraph to Hammett’s decision to sign “Dash” instead of “Papa” to a note written to his children while he was hospitalized: “This new signature might reflect a sudden distance from his role as father. But hospitalization is as likely to symbolize acute alienation from a sense of self. . . . Perhaps his own name was all Hammett could cling to.”
Lest we miss any of this groundbreaking work, Cline issues frequent reminders: “My new evidence shows” and “My evidence suggests” and “I saw all of Hellman’s working drafts, which show” and so on. The effect is to shift the focus from where it should be, the drama of Hammett’s life, to what Cline seems to see as the drama of her own research.
Cline can certainly manage a striking turn of phrase, as when she writes about Hellman’s reliance on Hammett’s mentorship: “She would have other critics but none as sharp. She would have other audiences but none as necessary.” But elsewhere the writing fumbles and confuses. I tried but failed to comprehend her claim that fathers in Hammett’s books “commit terrible acts with the author’s cynical acquiescence.” Was Hammett supposed to step into his novels and disagree with his characters?
More grievous troubles further undermine confidence. Cline claims, for example, that Otto Penzler contributed a jacket blurb to the 1930 edition of “The Maltese Falcon,” but that’s unlikely since Penzler wasn’t born until 1942. And the final paragraphs of this new biography echo the last passages of Layman’s “Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett” so closely as to be derivative, if not worse — right down to a tabulation of Hammett translations through 1975, a device inevitably fresher when it was first used back back in 1981.
It might be too easy a jab to say that Cline’s work, even with her new research, is a mere “shadow” of Layman’s, but those early ’80s biographies — denser, richer — will still be my go-to titles when it comes to everything Hammett.
Man of Mystery
By Sally Cline
Arcade. 234 pp. $22.95