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Socialism Today 151 - September 2011

Dashiell Hammett

Hardboiled writer, communist fighter

EARLIER THIS year it was announced that 15 previously unpublished short stories by the US writer Dashiell Hammett had been discovered in a university archive in Texas, provoking much excitement among fans of the hardboiled detective fiction genre.

Hammett is regarded by many literary critics as one of the most important writers of the 20th century. His most famous book, The Maltese Falcon, featuring the immortal detective, Sam Spade, was made into a film three times in the 1930s and 1940s. The best known version featured Humphrey Bogart, turning him into an international film star. His stories are still used by writers and film-makers today as a source and inspiration. The Coen brothers’ film, Miller’s Crossing, for example, lifts ideas from both The Glass Key and Red Harvest, books written by Hammett 80 years ago.

Hammett was also an anti-fascist activist and a member of the Communist Party of America. He went to jail rather than hand over evidence that could have been used against other activists during the anti-communist witch-hunt led by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.

Hammett was born in 1894, growing up in a working-class area of Baltimore. He left school at 13 and had a variety of jobs, including a freight clerk, a newsboy and a messenger for the B&O railroad. It was on the Baltimore waterfront that Hammett first came across socialist ideas, though he did not become active at that time. Instead, he made a contradictory career move when, in 1915, he joined the Pinkerton Private Detective Agency.

The Pinkertons carried out ‘traditional’ detective work but they were more often used as a private strike-breaking force by bosses. From the 1870s to the 1930s, labour movement activists were beaten up and many killed fighting for their rights. For example, in the ‘Homestead’ strike in Pittsburgh in 1892 pitched battles were fought between steel strikers and the Pinkertons, leading to 16 deaths.

Hammett worked for the Pinkertons until 1922, interrupted by service in the first world war. In 1920, he was sent to the Anaconda copper strike in Butte, Montana, in which copper workers led by the Industrial Workers of the World were battling for increased wages and the eight-hour day. Hammett revealed much later that he had been offered $5,000 by the mine-owners to murder one of the workers’ leaders. In another incident, a striking miner was shot in the back, probably by a Pinkerton agent. The experience at Anaconda, together with his poor health – in 1919 he was a victim of the influenza epidemic that swept the world and was later struck down with bronchial pneumonia – seems to have been decisive in leading Hammett to leave the Pinkertons.

While recovering from illness, Hammett began writing the detective stories that made his name. In the early 1920s, a key starting point for an aspiring writer was the short story magazines. Many of these magazines, aimed at a working-class readership, were printed on cheap pulpwood paper, hence they became known as ‘pulps’. Typically, they cost ten cents and were made to be read and then thrown away. Pulp fiction writers were paid by the word. The more a writer wrote, the more he or she got paid. Not surprisingly, the quality of much of what was produced was questionable.

Hammett’s decision to start story writing coincided more or less with the appointment of a new editor at what was to become the most important of the detective pulp magazines, The Black Mask. Joseph Shaw, or Cap Shaw as he became known, transformed The Black Mask magazine into a pulp that featured a new ‘hardboiled’ style of writing. Hammett became the master of this style and type of story.

Hardboiled detective fiction differed from earlier ‘cosy’ detective stories in that they tended to feature a more violent career criminal than the lords, ladies, retired colonels, vicars and rich aunts who cropped up in stories typified by those written by Agatha Christie. Hardboiled stories tended to be fast paced, often narrated through the first person private investigator.

It was not accidental that the hardboiled detective story developed in the USA in the 1920s. Prohibition (the alcohol ban) had created an opportunity for gangsters to add to the huge profits they were already making from prostitution, protection rackets and gambling. Organised crime would often control or at least have a significant influence over the police and city politics. This was the America of Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel. Violence and corruption were everywhere.

This violent backdrop provided the perfect canvas on which Hammett could write his stories. While the traditional detective fiction featured an eccentric ‘thinking machine’ like Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes, the hardboiled detective had to be good with his fists and a gun. Hammett’s short stories mostly featured an anonymous private detective known as ‘the Op’. He is certainly intelligent but not exceptionally so. The people he encountered were often ordinary and spoke with the language of the street. Hammett’s brilliance was in capturing the language of ordinary Americans and putting it on the page. This, together with a crisp style of short staccato sentences, gave a pace and authenticity to his stories.

While not politically active during the bulk of his writing career, many of his stories brilliantly expose the link between crime and the nature of capitalist society. As Hammett has Sam Spade say in The Maltese Falcon, "most things in San Francisco can be bought, or taken".

In Red Harvest, Hammett’s first novel, the Op is sent to clean up a town called Personville. The opening paragraph typifies Hammett’s genius: "I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn’t think anything of what he’d done to the city’s name. Later I heard men who could manage their r’s give it the same pronunciation. I still didn’t see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves’ word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better".

Personville/Poisonville is loosely based on Anaconda but is a metaphor for America: "Don’t kid yourselves that there’s any law in Poisonville except what you make for yourself". For Hammett, it was not just a case of cleaning up a town or removing a few bad eggs. Corruption and violence are structural in capitalist society.

In the 1930s, Hammett gave up writing and became more politically active. He joined the Communist Party (CP) although his membership was kept secret because the party leadership thought that he would thereby be able to reach a wider audience. Instead, he was involved in a number of CP front organisations. Hammett wanted to play a more active role and volunteered to fight against the fascists in the Spanish civil war by joining the International Brigade. The CP stopped him, however, preferring to use him as a spokesperson in the USA.

Unfortunately Hammett, like many CP members, loyally followed the ‘party line’, dictated by the Stalinist bureaucracy that had removed all vestiges of workers’ democracy in Russia. He publicly supported the Moscow purge trials that were used by the Stalinists to attack Leon Trotsky and other opponents of Stalinism. He followed the CP line in condemning the second world war up until the Nazi invasion of Russia. Once Russia had been invaded, Hammett was among the first to volunteer for army service.

Hammett was not a ‘bohemian communist’ who joined the CP because it was trendy. At the height of the cold war, when hundreds of ex-communists and former sympathisers were desperate to distance themselves, he loyally stood by the party and his comrades.

Hammett was a trustee of the New York branch of the Civil Rights Congress, a CP front set up to provide legal and financial assistance for activists. In 1951, the McCarthyite witch-hunt was at its height. Hammett was subpoenaed to appear in court. Asked to name any contributors to the civil rights fund he refused. He was then asked to hand over the records of the fund. This would have meant giving the names of thousands of activists to the state, potentially leaving them vulnerable to the witch-hunt. Again he refused.

The court sentenced him to six months in jail. Hammett offered no defence. After his release, he was blacklisted. His books that had sold in their hundreds of thousands were removed from public libraries. Screenings of film versions stopped. He became a non-person, dependent on the support of a few loyal friends for accommodation and food in his final years, finally dying from lung cancer in January 1961.

Dashiell Hammett was a principled though at times mistaken socialist who believed in a better life for all. We should remember him for his courage in standing up to the American state and going to prison rather than reveal the names of his comrades. However, most of all we should treasure the marvellous legacy of his writing, which is as entertaining today as it was when he wrote it.

Mick Whale

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