BY Ken Fuller

Praxis Press. 334 pages. £19.99/$25. ISBN 978-1-899155-06-4

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Dashiell Hammett is probably best known as the author of The Maltese Falcon, a novel that was also made into a classic film starring Humphrey Bogart as the hard-boiled private detective, Sam Spade. Hammett wrote four other novels, and dozens of short stories of variable quality, though you may need to be an enthusiast for tough-guy writers from the 1930s and 1940s to want to read them all. Pulp fiction, even at its best, had limitations and often suffered from the need for quick productions that wouldn’t make too many demands on its readers. I say that as an avid reader of pulp writers, and they sometimes surprise when the quality of their writing moves beyond the merely functional and turns into literature. But a lot of it is less than good, and there’s little to be gained by pretending otherwise.

Hammett is more interesting than many of the writers of pulp novels and stories. Prior to writing he had served in the American army at the time of the First World War, and had worked as a Pinkerton detective. From the point of view of his later political involvements, his Pinkerton period included strikebreaking, the agency having a notorious reputation for that kind of activity. Just how far he went in terms of any sort of physical contact with strikers is impossible to know. He may just have been behind the scenes, organising the roughnecks who broke up picket lines and terrorised strikers’ families. He was always a little vague about what he had actually done.

His long-time partner, the playwright Lillian Hellman, said that Hammett once told her that he’d been offered $5,000 to murder the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) organiser, Frank Little, during a strike in Butte, Montana, but as both Hammett and Hellman were unreliable when it came to facts, it’s best to discount this story. Frank Little was murdered in 1917, in a particularly nasty way, but by vigilantes. There is a gloating fictionalised version of his lynching in Zane Grey’s rabble-rousing novel, Desert of Wheat.

When Hammett moved on from his Pinkerton employment he had a family to support and turned to writing to make money. The Hollywood screenwriter, Nunnally Johnson, who knew Hammett later in the 1930s, said that he didn’t think that he had any other interest in writing beyond making money: “He had none of the usual incentives that keep writers at their typewriters for as long as they have the strength to hit the keys. He had no impulse to tell any more stories, no ambition to accomplish more as a writer….”.  This may go part way to explaining why he virtually stopped his efforts in that line once he’d produced the books that provided a steady income from royalties, film versions, radio adaptations, and other sources.

Because of the early anti-labour activities, and his later commitment to the Communist Party, some critics and commentators have looked for signs of radical leanings in Hammett’s fiction. Ken Fuller says there are none, and I’m inclined to agree with him. As he rightly points out, it is possible to conclude that Hammett was anti-capitalist, but that isn’t the same as being a socialist or communist. He had more of a nihilistic attitude towards life, and seemed to take the view that working for the Pinkerton Agency, was simply a job to be done as efficiently as possible, no matter what it involved. There is a brief appearance by an IWW organiser in the novel, Red Harvest, but he soon disappears from the story and has no significance in the plot.

Hammett wrote five published novels and, as mentioned earlier, many short stories, most of which appeared in the famous pulp magazine, Black Mask. The novels were serialised in the same publication, and the padding out, and obvious signs of hasty writing, that is sometimes in evidence probably came about because he was paid by the word, so he wrote to earn a bigger cheque. He certainly was never determined to make a political point in his novels and stories in the way that proletarian writers did in the 1930s. One of his most popular creations was the partnership of Nick and Nora in The Thin Man, which after its initial success as a book and film led to a short series of cinematic adaptations, thus putting extra money into Hammett’s account.

The portrayal of hard-drinking, wise-cracking socialites (based in part on Hellman and himself?) may have appeared odd to anyone who knew of Hammett’s developing political leanings. But, then again, perhaps not. No-one really expected pulp writers, or anyone connected with Hollywood, to make overt radical statements in their books or work for films. They may have taken part in the activities of the left-wing Screen Writers Guild, and supported good causes outside the studios, but for the most part they wrote what was required for comedies, musicals, westerns, crime stories, and anything else that the publishers of pulp books and magazines, or the studio writing factories, demanded of them.

Fuller quotes someone else as saying: “The moral vision of The Thin Man is dark indeed”. And he adds that “Nick Charles has no social conscience, surrounding himself with riches and numbing himself with alcohol at a time when 15 million American are unemployed”. Is this Hammett shining a light on the indifference to suffering of the rich, or perhaps looking at himself and finding his own actions questionable? The latter interpretation could be nearer the truth. He earned good money, but squandered it on drink and prostitutes.

When did Hammett become politicised? Some have suggested that it was around 1930, when he started his relationship with Hellmann, but a likelier time was a little later. The rise of the Popular Front policy, the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, and Hammett’s presence in Hollywood, where a strong communist group existed among writers and some directors and actors, probably gave impetus to ideas that were already implanted in Hammett’s mind. If he joined the Communist Party (Hellmann says he didn’t, but again her reliability is questionable) it was no doubt around 1937 or so. And it’s from this period that he began to come to the attention of the FBI.

Why did Hammett, a cynical, worldly-wise man whose philosophy of life tended towards nihilism, if anything, join the Communist Party and often adhere to its policies even when other people were questioning them? He agreed with the Party line about Spain. He signed statements which said that the late-1930s trials of supposed conspirators in Russia were legitimate. He supported the Soviet Union when Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler. Did having a Party line to follow give meaning to his life? He certainly seems to have taken his membership seriously and wasn’t just someone who thought it sufficient to pay his dues and read the Party papers.

Hammett’s drinking was always a problem, though he did have long periods on the wagon. It’s interesting that, assuming he was a member, the Party seems to have turned a blind eye to what Fuller describes as the “strong bohemian strain in the behaviour of Hammett and Hellman”. Both drank, Hammett obviously more than she did, and had various affairs which they didn’t try to keep quiet about. Were their misdemeanours accepted because they were high-profile people who, particularly during the Popular Front period and the Second World War, the Party found it useful to have around for publicity purposes? And what do we know, if anything, about how much they contributed to Party funds. One of the reasons the Party cultivated connections with writers and others in Hollywood was because they were often high earners and donated money to communist causes.

Hammett served in the army during the Second World War, and on his return to the United States became even more active with a number of organisations that were essentially run by the Communist Party. One of them was the Civil Rights Congress which put up the bail money for Communist Party leaders who were on trial. When some of them jumped bail, Hammett as Chairman of the Bail Fund Committee was hauled into court to be questioned about the whereabouts of the people concerned, and ordered to hand over membership lists of the organisation and identify people who had contributed to the bail fund. He refused and was sentenced to six months imprisonment for contempt of court.

Never a really well-man from a health point of view, Hammett had suffered from tuberculosis and the years of heavy drinking had also taken their toll. He refused to take things easier, but was eventually hospitalised and died of lung cancer in 1961.

It’s easy to see why Hammett had a reputation for being “hardboiled”. His intransigence when it came to supporting the Party line, and his lack of sentiment about the working-class, set him apart from many idealistic middle-class communists and fellow-travellers. He didn’t expect people from working-class backgrounds to be any better than they were. Fuller refers to a short story called “The Hunter,” in which a private detective beats up a man who has been forging cheques in order to make him confess. He doesn’t think about why the man committed the crime (he has domestic problems and a family to support). It’s simply his job to get a confession and hand him over to the police. Fuller says that it’s a “stark illustration of what one working man will do to another due to their respective roles within the capitalist system”. I suspect that, deep down, Hammett may not have thought that people would ever be any different in their habits and prejudices, even under a communist system.

Ken Fuller has done a good job with looking at Hammett’s work, analysing the novels in detail, and surveying some of the short stories. He’s also taken into account Hammett’s short-lived and not very successful career as a writer in Hollywood. He made money from films, but it was mostly due to his books being bought for transition into screen versions of them. Other writers were hired to adapt the stories and produce the screenplays.

Hammett’s sometimes-violent relationship with Lillian Hellman is also dealt with, and his possible contributions to the plays she wrote. As mentioned earlier, she wasn’t the most reliable of witnesses and the fact that she outlived him by many years (she died in 1984) meant that she could, in a sense, re-write the past in interviews and her autobiographical publications. She famously fell out with many people, and just before she died was about to take on Mary McCarthy in court. McCarthy had said that every word Hellman wrote was “a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’ “. It was, essentially, a continuation of an argument that went back in New York intellectual circles to the 1930s and the clashes between so-called Stalinists and Trotskyists. There’s a short-story by McCarthy, “The Genial Host” (in The Company She Keeps, Penguin Books, 1965) which has a fictional character supposedly based on Hellman and captures the atmosphere of the period.

Hardboiled Activist is a lively read and Ken Fuller is obviously a devotee of Hammett’s fiction. He also has a sympathetic take on his political convictions and, in his way, attempts to justify Hammett’s support for the purges in Russia, the actions of the Communist Party in Spain, and the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939. Even if you don’t sympathise with his views they do probably reflect Hammett’s quite accurately.