Friday, September 11, 2015

The Lost Detective: Separating Fact From Fiction In Dashiell Hammett’s Life And Work

Art Taylor reviews Nathan Ward's The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett in the Washington Post. 

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.

... 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. 

You can read the rest of the review via the below link:

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