The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett by Nathan Ward
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