Art Taylor is an assistant professor of English at George Mason University and the author of “On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories.”
The story goes that in 1917, Dashiell Hammett was offered $5,000 by an officer of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company to kill labor union organizer Frank Little, who had come to Butte, Mont., to stir up striking miners. Hammett, who was working for the Pinkerton Detective Agency as a strikebreaker, declined the offer. Little was killed, and it was believed that other Pinkertons may have been behind his lynching. Despite it all, Hammett stuck with the Pinkerton job.
The story has become pivotal for many people attempting to understand Hammett and his work, which includes the novels “Red Harvest,” “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Thin Man,” and many short stories. Hammett’s longtime lover Lillian Hellman once called the tale “a kind of key to his life,” and novelist James Ellroy linked the episode to “the great theme of [Hammett’s] work.”
Trouble is, the story probably isn’t true.
And that’s not news, by the way. Hammett’s biographer Richard Layman called the story “implausible” in his 1981 book “Shadow Man,” and Ellroy has labeled it “mythic.” But in his new book, “The Lost Detective,” Nathan Ward analyzes and dismantles the claim in more detail, part of an extensive bid to clarify Hammett’s early years and his transformation into one of the most influential crime writers of all time.
“The Lost Detective” is less a formal biography than a loose, entertaining exploration of the many intersections of fact and fiction in the creation of a persona and a literary legacy. Ward weighs the truth of various anecdotes in the writer’s life. Hammett spoke of driving an ambulance during World War I that flipped and threw out its patients, causing him never to drive any car again. But, as Ward writes, “no record can be found of [the] traumatic accident.” Later, Hammett claimed to have solved a case of missing gold aboard the steamship S.S. Sonoma, but as Ward tells us, “the gold was not even found by a Pinkerton.” In presenting these clarifications, Ward brings to the forefront research and documentation that might elsewhere be relegated to endnotes; sometimes he pits one authority against another in dialogue on the page.
At other times, he serves as a tour guide, linking real-life locales to the fictional work and drawing heavily on Don Herron’s famous Dashiell Hammett walking tour of San Francisco. Of the Flood Building, the Pinkertons’ San Francisco headquarters, Ward writes that “the clatter of stone underfoot and the sunlit frosted glass of each office doorway evoke films from the Sam Spade era” and that “in these halls [Hammett] formed our idea of what a private detective’s office should look like.” Visiting the studio apartment where Hammett wrote much of “The Maltese Falcon” prompts a giddy fandom moment from Ward: “One can imagine the bulbous villain Casper Gutman seated heavily on the room’s couch discussing the history of his black bird, or Brigid O’Shaughnessy undressing in Sam’s bathroom to prove she’s not a thief.” In his tour-guide mode, Ward turns gossipy when he notes that some “Hammett enthusiasts” who have stayed in the Hammett Suite of the Hotel Union Square “put the discordant Hellman portrait facedown during their stay.” She played no part in those San Francisco years.
In connecting fact and fiction, the most interesting argument of the book is that Hammett’s years as a detective contributed not only to the plots and themes of his work, but also to his landmark style: “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.” Indeed, while reading documents in the Pinkerton archive at the Library of Congress, Ward discovered that the “reports were written to a certain understated standard, presenting a collection of rogues rendered matter-of-factly, with a surprisingly light touch.” Ward likens Pinkerton supervisors to editors and the submission of reports to a kind of streetwise training in the craft of writing.
Those reports resonate with Hammett’s style and even the kinds of characters and plotlines in his work, but as Ward notes, none of Hammett’s own reports have ever been identified in the archive. So any significant textual analysis proves elusive, indirect at best. Ward describes other operatives’ cases to convey that “Hammett did jobs just like these.” He also provides mini-biographies of Allan Pinkerton and his employees — including the “Cowboy Detective” Charlie Siringo and the legendary James McParland, known as the “Great Detective” and the basis for the Pinkerton in the Sherlock Holmes adventure “The Valley of Fear” — that ultimately tell us more about the agency than about Hammett’s history within it.
Given Ward’s dedication to charting how fact fed storytelling and how imagination built on truth, the author distressingly blends the two at times. Quotes from Hammett’s fiction are used to illustrate the life and routines of a detective, just as quotes from the “Hammett-like narrator of his novel fragment ‘Tulip’ ” are used to paint a portrait of Hammett’s mother and of his time in a veterans hospital. Autobiographical elements infuse Hammett’s fiction, certainly, but these moves run the risk of simply conflating one with the other.
Nevertheless, the merits of Ward’s work far outweigh such missteps. As brisk and conversational as a magazine feature, “The Lost Detective” invites readers not just to explore Hammett’s early years in more detail and consider how those formative experiences helped shape his writing career, but also — as the subtitle, “Becoming Dashiell Hammett,” suggests — to look at how the Hammett persona was created. And as we Hammett fans know, there are few personas, few writers in 20th-century literature period, more interesting to read about.
By Nathan Ward
Bloomsbury. 214 pp. $26