More than meets the private eye

The fedora, trench coat and smoky walkup office are all common tropes in the literary genre known as “hard-boiled” detective stories. So too are the rough edged, tough talking and hard fighting loners who inhabit them. They have more in common with old West gunslingers and medieval knights than the average man. There’s a code. There’s loyalty; and there’s cunning. They get bloodied, but they survive.

We know many of these men almost like neighbors. That is of course if you live in a boarding house, or a cramped apartment next to an omnipresent neon sign. Their names, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer, Mike Hammer are all deeply embedded in the 20th century literary culture, but it wasn’t always so. All things start somewhere. This tradition began with writer, Dashiell Hammett (some purists may argue Carroll John Daly, a largely forgotten author of the 1920s). Hammett, who was born 120 years ago this week, gave artistic birth to the aforementioned Sam Spade.

Spade made his first appearance in The Maltese Falcon. The book’s plot and characters were so compelling Hollywood has taken three stabs at it: once in 1931; once in 1936 under the title Satan Met a Lady, starring Bette Davis; and again in John Huston’s 1941 version starring Humphrey Bogart. It is the last rendition that is etched indelibly upon the public mind.

Co-starring Mary Astor along with Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet (the latter pair also Bogart’s co-stars in Casablanca), the movie version of Hammett’s novel is the exemplar of hard-boiled drama. In many ways it also set the stage for the entire film noir genre. Bogart’s Spade is disillusioned but vigilant and Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy is the archetypal femme fatale.

Hammett began a romance with playwright Lillian Hellman, who served as the model for Nora Charles in his 1934 comic mystery The Thin Man. The book was made into a movie later that same year. Starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, their characters, Nick and Nora Charles inspired several sequel films. Hammett and Hellman remained romantically involved until Hammett’s death in 1961.

Even so, Hellman had to tolerate Hammett’s prodigal excesses. Just as Sam Spade was flawed and vulnerable, so too was his creator. He was renown for his heavy drinking, reckless gambling, dalliances with prostitutes and elaborate gifts for his lovers — all of which consumed much of the proceeds from his book and movie deals.

Hammett himself also ran afoul of the law. In 1946 he was jailed for four months for his involvement with a group of communists who absconded while out on bail for conspiracy charges. The same year the IRS demanded back payment of taxes. This proved to be his creative undoing. Finding himself bankrupt, blacklisted and weak from years of drinking, Hammett wrote nothing else.

Mirroring the rise and fall of his characters, Hammett’s legacy is larger than the man himself. Without Hammett to blaze the trail, Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, Earle Stanley Gardner, Paul Cain and others may not have given flesh and blood to the mid-century rush of black and white justice.

Nor would the greats of the modern era — the likes of James Crumley, Robert B. Parker and Robert Crais — have been given such a firm literary footing. Even those writers whose dark elegies didn’t always feature a stone-faced detective — James Ellroy, George Pelecanos and Elmore Leonard to name a few — owe Hammett a great debt for their gritty thrillers.

While Hammett’s end is now more than half a century in the rearview, his influence and style will live long into the dark night.