If you ask James Ellroy who the big swinging cheese in the world of the hardboiled detective story is, he will tell you in no uncertain terms that Dashiell Hammett is the man. Hammet has been called , one of the finest mystery writers of all time. His work has been and still is, influential to writers of hard hitting detective fiction. In a similar way to his accolyte Raymond Chandler, Hammett has much to thank Humphrey Bogart for. In Hammet’s case it was Bogart’s legendary portrayal of Detective Sam Spade in the 1941 film The Maltese Falcon. A genre defining performance, that became a cultural reference point when thinking of the world of the private eye.
Hammett wrote a lot of short fiction for pulp magazines like Black Mask, but only five books: Red Harvest (1929), The Dain Curse (1929) The Maltese Falcon(1930) The Glass Key (1931) and The Thin Man (1934) A paltry legacy when you consider the positively prolific output, some would say too prolific, of certain modern writers.
One has to remember however that Hammett worked for the world famous, Pinkerton Detective Agency where he got much of his material for his later books. He then got wrapped up in World War two and then got embroiled in in the McCarthyist anti-communist brouhaha of the post war years, ultimately landing in jail, because of his political views. Hammet also had other hobbies besides communist sympathy, namely drinking and smoking himself to death, which he succeeded in doing in 1961, with the aid of tuberculosis. Had there been more time, there would almost certainly have been more books. But the tragedy of early death often makes legends greater. Hammett is a legend and through his work that legend lives on.