Spadework

John Brown

  • Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett by Richard Layman
    Junction, 285 pp, £9.95, August 1981, ISBN 0 86245 027 6

Universally acclaimed as the pioneer of the modern detective-thriller, Hammett died in 1961, yet this is the first full-length account of his life to appear. In the context of the continuing vogue for biography, such a delay constitutes a small literary mystery, and in the preface to Shadow Man Richard Layman supplies a terse explanation. It appears that Lillian Hellman, Hammett’s closest friend from 1931 onwards, took steps soon after his death to acquire legal control of all the novelist’s copyrights (despite the terms of Hammett’s will), using as an argument her own intention to write a biography. Then, having succeeded in acquiring control, Miss Hellman decided not to carry out this intention – at least not in conventional form, since her own subsequent series of memoirs do make extensive reference to her life with Hammett – and announced instead that an authorised version would be produced by other hands, with her collaboration and under her direction. Despite a considerable passage of time, Layman notes bleakly, this work has not materialised; nor do the reminiscences in An Unfinished Woman and the other memoirs form an acceptable substitute in (so to speak) Layman’s terms: he refers to those various portraits of Hammett as ‘clouded’, while also writing of attempts by Miss Hellman to inhibit biographical research by others.

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