The Lost De­tec­tive: Be­com­ing Dashiell Ham­mett by Nathan Ward

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - Nathan Ward, Blooms­bury, 214 pages by

Nathan Ward’s short new book The Lost De­tec­tive:

Be­com­ing Dashiell Ham­mett will find a ready au­di­ence among fans of the writer whom The New York

Times re­garded as “the dean of the so-called ‘hard­boiled’ school of de­tec­tive fic­tion.” This, in it­self, is a feat. Af­ter all, what new thing can be said about a writer who has been the sub­ject of no less than two dozen books? The an­swer, it turns out, is to of­fer to solve a mys­tery about this mas­ter­ful au­thor of mys­ter­ies.

The de­tails of Ham­mett’s life as a suc­cess­ful nov­el­ist are well known, from his ro­man­tic part­ner­ship with the play­wright Lil­lian Hell­man to his strug­gles dur­ing the McCarthy era. His sparse writ­ing style was reg­u­larly com­pared to that of Ernest Hem­ing­way, and Ham­mett’s cool and de­tached fic­tional de­tec­tive Sam Spade, por­trayed by Humphrey Bog­art on the screen, re­mains one of the most iconic char­ac­ters of Amer­i­can de­tec­tive nov­els.

What fas­ci­nates Ward, though, is what came be­fore. So in­stead of tread­ing over fa­mil­iar ground, Ward clev­erly an­i­mates his book by seek­ing to an­swer a cen­tral ques­tion about Ham­mett: “How could the poised cre­ator of The Mal­tese Fal­con or Red Har­vest have come to a writ­ing ca­reer so late, seem­ingly with­out the cus­tom­ary years of prac­tice and am­bi­tion?”

The an­swer, Ward be­lieves, lies in Ham­mett’s seven years as an investigator for the Pinker­ton Na­tional De­tec­tive Agency. “I wanted to read a book that did not ex­ist on Dashiell Ham­mett’s years as a real de­tec­tive,” Ward writes in ex­plain­ing his ap­proach, “and about ex­actly how he had made his fa­mous trans­fo­ma­tion from Pinker­ton op­er­a­tive to mas­ter of the Amer­i­can de­tec­tive story.”

When Ham­mett took a job in the Pinker­ton Bal­ti­more of­fice in 1915, the na­tion’s old­est and largest pri­vate de­tec­tive agency had 20 branch of­fices around the coun­try. The firm trained its men well to care­fully shadow the sub­ject of their in­ves­ti­ga­tion, to as­sume be­liev­able false iden­ti­ties, and to snoop un­de­tectably. Ap­par­ently Ham­mett be­came an adept op­er­a­tive, much like those in his first de­tec­tive tales — one of whom tells read­ers, “nine­ty­nine per cent of de­tec­tive work is a pa­tient col­lect­ing of de­tails — and your de­tails must be got nearly first-hand as pos­si­ble.”

To pur­sue his tale of Ham­mett the de­tec­tive, Ward ex­am­ined the Pinker­ton ar­chives in the Li­brary of Congress. Hun­dreds of boxes con­tain em­ployee records, com­mu­ni­ca­tions with clients, brochures, memos, and most im­por­tantly of all, case re­ports. Dis­ap­point­ingly, he could find none that could be iden­ti­fied as Ham­mett’s work. “But even an hour spent read­ing through the re­ports of other op­er­a­tives gives a good idea of the ex­pe­ri­ences and for­mat that formed Ham­mett as a writer,” he writes. As he pored over these re­ports, Ward, a for­mer

Amer­i­can Her­itage ed­i­tor, was struck by how sim­i­lar they sounded to the style Ham­mett adopted for his nov­els. The op­er­a­tives hopped on and off street­cars, spent count­less dull hours in sur­veil­lance, and in­vari­ably fol­lowed bad leads to in­ves­tiga­tive fail­ures. “Be­fore he could write his fic­tional Op se­ries,” said Ward, re­fer­ring to the imag­i­nary Con­ti­nen­tal De­tec­tive Agency’s name­less de­tec­tive, “Ham­mett read and sub­mit­ted scores of such memos on the job.”

Ward’s re­sult­ing book, novella in length, is en­ter­tain­ing, lively, and pro­vides a fresh look at Ham­mett. But the ap­proach does have a frus­trat­ing weak­ness of in­dulging in far too much con­jec­ture. The text is dot­ted with “prob­a­bly” or “seems”; “must also have” or “would have known”; “must have won­dered what might have hap­pened”; or “had cer­tainly read.” More sig­nif­i­cantly, be­cause Ward could not iden­tify any Ham­mett re­ports in the Pinker­ton ar­chives, it is only by in­fer­ence that the au­thor builds the case that Ham­mett’s unique fic­tion was shaped by the writ­ing he did for the de­tec­tive agency. He’s doubtlessly right — but I’m not sure that Ham­mett’s bosses would have ac­cepted such con­jec­ture in a re­port from one of their gumshoes. — James Mc­Grath Mor­ris

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