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New biography sheds light on life and work of Dashiell Hammett

By Jane Robbins Mize

Sally Cline, a British award-winning biographer and short story writer, recently published the biography Dashiell Hammett: Man of Mystery (Arcade). She received a Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Jewish Studies from the Harry Ransom Center in 2003-2004, which supported her work in the Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman collections. Below, Cline answers questions about her new Hammett biography.

 

You have previously conducted research on both Dashiell Hammett and his lifelong companion, Lillian Hellman. What led to you revisit the topic and ultimately to write a biography of Hammett?

Publishers were more interested in having separate smaller biographies about Hammett and Hellman than the big joint biography I had envisaged. The American publishing firm Arcade commissioned a compact biography of Hammett, and that is what I wrote. I have, of course, a great deal more research material left on Hellman as an individual and Hellman in relation to Hammett, so I plan to also write a short study of Hellman using the theme of memories and myths.

 

 

What aspects of Hammett’s character and work are of special interest?

His writing, of course, and in particular the way in which he transformed and subverted the detective novel. Through his moral vision expressed in every book he wrote, he effectively elevated the genre of mystery writing into the category of literature.

 

His near-nihilistic philosophy (especially his root idea that the world is ruled by meaningless blind chance), which becomes the thematic context to all his work and much of his behavior.

 

Relevant to this interest is my choice of the anecdote about Flitcraft (in The Maltese Falcon), which stands out as his most memorable piece of nonfiction prose. Ironically, despite the fact the anecdote was key to the novel’s theme, when John Huston made the most famous of the several films about the Falcon, he left it out. Hammett would have appreciated the irony.

 

I am interested in another irony whereby a writer whose creed is moral ambiguity and random results chooses to write crime novels that are generally predicated on linear clues and an orderly progression of facts.

 

I am interested in his relationship to other men and to women. He always preferred male company but was terrified of being thought homosexual. Yet, apart from his affectionate and initially sexually successful relationship with his wife Josie, he did not have a genuinely equal sexual, emotional, and interdependent relationship with any other woman, not even Lillian Hellman. He coped sexually by using prostitutes and was sometimes violent towards women, especially when drunk.

 

Two more things fascinate me. One is his series of debilitating illnesses that made him virtually an invalid in an era when masculine identity was predicated upon robust health. Real Men were not sick!

 

The other part that intrigues me, as it has intrigued his many other biographers, is his long literary silence.

 

What I felt was important was not the myth that he stopped writing—indeed as his daughter Jo testified, he never stopped writing; he merely stopped finishing. But the sad fact is that despite the constant agonized writing, he never again published a full novel after The Thin Man.

 

 

How did the Ransom Center’s archives serve you in your research process? Did they provide any new insights and/or understandings of Hammett?

The Center’s archives provided an enormous amount of information, which along with Hammett’s own family helped answer many of my most significant questions. Two people at the Ransom Center in particular must be singled out: Margi Tenney and Pat Fox. I have so far held four or five fellowships at the Ransom Center over a great many years, and in every case these two women have been unfailingly helpful, flexible, kind, efficient, and brilliant in making my work flow and focus.

 

Image: Cover of Sally Cline’s Dashiell Hammett: Man of Mystery.

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