Hammett: Terry Zobeck Reviews The Lost Detective


Since we’re hosting Biography Month because of the new Hammett bio by Nathan Ward, how about we kick the thing into gear with a full-fledged review by none other than Terry Zobeck, the most prolific Guest Blogger here on Up and Down These Mean Streets?

In a previous review Terry covered the collection The Hunter and Other Stories, and here he is with thoughts on The Lost Detective — where Nathan fares pretty well until he enters Terry’s special turf, bibliographic detail:


When I began reading Hammett in the late 1960s there was very little information available about him. He was truly a man of mystery. Since then there have been four major biographies. But much remains unknown.

Nathan Ward’s The Lost Detective tackles two of the more tenacious questions: What was the nature of Hammett’s detective career and how did he become one of the most influential writers of the 20th Century?

The title of the book is well-chosen. Hammett’s career as a detective is poorly documented and, thus, lost to history. And for all of his life up to the end of the detective days, Hammett was known as Sam. The use of his middle name, Dashiell, was a deliberate move to establish a “literary” name, thus the subtitle of the book.

The crux of the answer that Ward provides for the first question is that it was Hammett’s work as a detective that formed his literary style, writing case reports that emphasized short sentences driven by action verbs and non-judgmental, almost flat prose that exuded a sense of realism.

It is a style that was pioneered by other authors of the time, most notably Ernest Hemingway, and that continues to resonate today. The question of who was first is irrelevant — there most probably were several contemporaneous writers who developed a similar style independently of one another.

Ward is persuasive in his argument that Hammett’s path to this style was through his work as a private detective. The first part of the book deals with a history of the Pinkerton’s and what Hammett’s work as one of its operatives would have been like — strikebreaking, kidnappings, bank robberies, chasing outlaws, tracking missing persons, etc.

Founder Alan Pinkerton insisted on reports that demonstrated his operatives’ understanding of criminals and their behavior. Pinkerton demanded that these reports be factual and crisp.

Much of Ward’s case rests on his examination and analysis of the Pinkerton’s archives at the Library of Congress. Although none of Hammett’s reports survive in this (or any) archive, many of the reports from his contemporaries do. One can clearly see that Pinkerton’s directive influenced the content and style of these reports — many read as if they could have served as plot and character outlines for Hammett’s Continental Op stories. They are filled with criminal and detective lore and peppered with colorful criminal names like Gloomy Gus Schaefer.

Hammett was able to couple this experience and style with his imagination and ambition to produce exciting stories that had an immediate impact and endure to this day.

The lost nature of Hammett’s detective career has led some to speculate that Hammett was not truthful about this period of his life; indeed that he was never a detective at all. Given that much of Hammett’s credibility as a realistic and hardboiled writer is based upon his real-life experience as a man-hunter, this is a potentially damaging claim.

Ward convincingly lays this doubt to rest. He has unearthed Hammett’s draft registration card, dated June 15, 1917; Hammett gives Pinkerton’s as his employer. At this early date Hammett would have no earthly reason to lie about this. There is no evidence that he had ambitions to be a writer at this point in his life, an occupation he turned to only when the tuberculosis that he hadn’t yet contracted in 1917 forced him to give up more strenuous work by late 1921.

Ward tells us that the draft registration card is one of two legal documents that list Pinkerton’s as his employer, but he does not tell us what the other one is. Presumably this would be one of the many forms he completed for the Veteran’s Bureau to document his disability following discharge from the Army in 1919.

Further evidence of Hammett’s employment as a Pinkerton’s Op was provided by David Fecheimer, a San Francisco PI and Hammett aficionado of the first rank. He was originally hired in the early 1970s by Steven Marcus to provide research for a planned Hammett biography (Marcus was the editor of the 1974 collection The Continental Op; he ran afoul of Hellman and the biography was never completed).

Fecheimer’s research turned up two former Pinkerton’s operatives who were contemporaries of Hammett’s, one of whom, Phil Haultain, worked with Hammett; he claims Hammett taught him shadowing technique.

More importantly, Fecheimer located Hammett’s widow, Josephine Dolan Hammett, living in Los Angeles with her older daughter Mary Jane Miller. His interviews with Jose and Mary and Phil Haultain were published in a special issue of City of San Francisco magazine in November 1975. This is fascinating material and Ward makes excellent use of it.

Hammett’s Pinkerton’s career looms large in his legend. He frequently told interviewers and acquaintances about his more colorful cases, including his work as a strikebreaker in Butte, Montana in 1917 and two cases from 1921, the first Fatty Arbuckle rape trial and the S.S. Sonoma robbery. Ward presents what is known about many of these cases and concludes that while Hammett may have worked on some of them, he was too ill at the time to have worked extensively on any of them. He speculates that it suited Hammett’s purposes to embellish these stories for interviewers and listeners as his writing career blossomed.

Hammett claimed that his discovery of the gold shipment stolen from the S.S. Sonoma was his final case. He often cited its successful but disheartening conclusion — he solved himself out of a Pacific cruise — as the reason he quit the detecting game. Jose told Fecheimer a less existential and more likely reason, “. . . he took sick. He couldn’t do that stuff any more. You know, go out in the fog.”

According to our old friend Fred Dannay, Hammett once told him that he based his character the Continental Op on James Wright, his supposed boss in Pinkerton’s Baltimore office. Ward makes a strong case that this was another of Hammett’s embellishments. His examination of the Pinkerton’s archives revealed that “James Wright” appears to have been a frequently used alias of Pinkerton’s agents working undercover. The earliest example discovered by Ward was from 1874 by an operative tracking the Younger brothers in Missouri.

He speculates that the real model for the Op may have been Hammett’s San Francisco boss, Phil Geauque, who was short, fortyish, balding and a heavy smoker, and who ended up being on FDR’s secret service detail.

While Hammett’s work as a detective is central to his literary career, it was relatively brief, totaling little more than four years. In 1915, at the age of 20, he answered an ad placed in a local Baltimore paper for experienced young men who liked to travel. He applied, was hired, and for the next three years he traveled around the country learning his trade and enjoying life. His career was interrupted by the War in June 1918. He returned to sleuthing sporadically as his health permitted. In May 1920, he worked out of Pinkerton’s Spokane office before entering the hospital in Tacoma and later San Diego.

He eventually wound up in San Francisco in mid-1921 where he again signed up with the Pinkerton’s, but by the end of the year his manhunting days were over; from then on they would be confined to the printed page.

The second part of The Lost Detective is a detailed, chronological assessment of Hammett’s writing. Ward explains in the acknowledgements that Richard Layman suggested to him that to understand how Hammett transformed himself from a gumshoe into a polished writer one should read Hammett’s stories in chronological order. In this way one truly gets a sense of his experimentation with style, theme, plot, and story-telling and his rapid progress in mastering all of them. Ward followed Layman’s advice to good advantage.

It is always a pleasure to read a perceptive and well-informed assessment of Hammett’s stories. Ward covers all five of the novels and the major stories, especially the best of the Op tales. I was especially gratified to learn that he rates “Corkscrew” highly for many of the same reasons that Don and I do.

The Lost Detective is a thoughtful and well-reasoned exploration of how Hammett became a writer. Ward’s major contribution to Hammett research is the mining of the Pinkerton’s archives and the insight they provide to his sleuthing and literary development. However, he may have overlooked other material that further illuminates the topic, evidence provided by Hammett himself via his own writings.

Ward does not mention “Vamping Samson”, the article Hammett wrote for the May 9, 1925 issue of The Editor explaining how he came to write the story “Ber Bulu”. Hammett was notoriously reticent when it came to talking about his own writing life; among his many extant letters only a handful discuss it. “Vamping Samson” and the introduction to the Modern Library edition of The Maltese Falcon (also not discussed by Ward) are the only lengthy instances where he does so in print.

Ward also ignored Hammett’s career as a book reviewer for the Saturday Review of Literature (1927-1929) and the New York Evening Post (1930). These reviews are peppered with his often witty observations on what makes for good (and bad) writing; in doing so they demonstrate that Hammett’s development of the hardboiled, realistic detective story was deliberate and well-planned.

Neither is there any mention of the classified ads for editing services that Hammett ran in Writer’s Digest in 1925. They indicate how pressed for cash Hammett had become by then, but more importantly they suggest how confident he was in his literary skills after less than three years as a published author.

But Ward does note that “[s]omtime during the winter through the spring of 1925 to 1926, a desperate Hammett took out a classified ad asking for any available work and boasting ‘. . . and I can write.’” The existence of such an ad is news to me. It is disappointing that Ward does not identify the publication in which the ad appeared. It is not the only instance of a lack of sourcing for factual statements.

Another intriguing example is Ward’s claim that by the end of December 1925 Hammett became a regular reviewer for Western Advertising magazine. Again, if true, this is bibliographic news. Hammett is known to have published five pieces in Western Advertising between October 1926 and March 1928; only one of these was a book review — a 1928 omnibus review of the advertising literature of 1927. If indeed Ward has discovered that Hammett began reviewing books for the magazine as early as December 1925 he needs to tell us the details.

Most oddly, but of least importance, is his implication that “The Big Knockover” and “$106,000 Blood Money” were published in Black Mask as excerpts and serially. On page 117, he says of “The Big Knockover” “it began running in excerpts in February 1927”. Of “$106,000 Blood Money” he writes on page 119 it “began running in May [1927]”. Ward is obviously a knowledgeable Hammett scholar, so surely he knows that these novelettes were not excerpted in Black Mask from a longer work nor were they serialized; the first was presented complete and for the first time in the February 1927 issue and the second in the May 1927 issue.

And, lastly, it was A Fistful of Dollars that was based upon Red Harvest, not The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

None of these criticisms are fatal to Ward’s premise or to the reader’s enjoyment of the book. Discussion of “Vamping Samson”, Hammett’s book reviewing career and the Writer’s Digest ads would have supported and enhanced Ward’s basic premise of how Hammett became a writer, but their omissions do not negate it.

The Lost Detective is a welcome addition to the literature on Dashiell Hammett.

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