Thursday, February 6, 2020

Dashiell Hammett Took Crime From Street To Paper: My Washington Times 'On Crime' Column On The Late, Great Crime Writer

The Washington Times published my On Crime column on the late, great crime writer Dashiell Hammett.

I’ve been following the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse trial in New York and I was interested particularly in the testimony of a private investigator named Sam Anson.

Sam Anson was called to the stand last month by the state to testify about Harvey Weinstein’s offer to hire the private detective to investigate people the Hollywood producer believed were contacting journalists and talking about his sexual activities with women. Sam Anson did not take the case.    

The testimony of this modern-day private investigator made me think of two other private detectives named Sam. One was Samuel Dashiell Hammett, a former Pinkerton detective, and the other was Hammett’s popular literary creation, private eye Sam Spade.   

As a crime aficionado since my early teens, I’ve read and re-read the crime stories of Dashiell Hammett over the years. One of the first books in my now-extensive library was a collection of his classic crime novels, which included “Red Harvest,” “The Dain Curse,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Glass Key” and “The Thin Man.”

The first character in his short stories was a nameless detective known only as the “Continental Op.” His first two novels, “Red Harvest” and “The Dain Curse,” both published in 1929, featured the Continental Op as the narrator.

Although the Continental Op stories were written in the first person, the short and fat veteran detective was clearly not based on the author. Some have said that the Continental Op was based on James Wright, an old-time detective and Hammett’s boss at the Pinkerton’s Baltimore office.

The author said Sam Spade, described as a “blonde Satan” in his 1930 novel “The Maltese Falcon,” was also not based on himself, but Diane Johnson, the author of “Dashiell Hammett: A Life,” noted that Hammett gave Spade his first name, a close physical description, and he subtly identified with him.

When asked where his characters in “The Maltese Falcon” came from, Diane Johnson wrote that Hammett replied, “I followed Gutman’s original in Washington, and I never remember shadowing a man who bored me so much. He was not after a jeweled falcon, of course; but he was suspected of being a German spy … I worked with Dundy’s prototype in a North Carolina railroad yard. The Cairo character I picked up on a forgery charge in 1920. Effie, the good girl, once asked me to go into the narcotic smuggling business with her in San Diego.

You can read the rest of the column:

You can also read my Washington Times review of The Big Book of the Continental Op via the below link:

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