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.

Here, nevertheless, is Shadow Man, which has been produced ‘without her assistance and without hindrance from her’ and which draws upon Layman’s own earlier work (the descriptive bibliography published in 1979 by the University of Pittsburg Press). It also draws, as he readily acknowledges, on research done for other projected and equally unauthorised lives of Hammett by David Fechheimer and William Godschalk, and upon material gathered by William Nolan, editor of Dashiell Hammett: A Casebook. In other words, Shadow Man emerges from a background of intrigue: prolonged scuffling in the literary undergrowth and a growing sense of frustration amongst Hammett aficionados, resulting eventually in an agreement to join forces behind the likeliest prospect of success, for Layman records that when he announced his intention to write the long-overdue biography, both Fechheimer and Gosdchalk voluntarily abandoned their projects.

The scene might appear to have been set for a combative account of Hammett’s life, piercing the veils of memory and sentiment, correcting misconceptions and myths and flooding the dark corners with new light. In fact, what Layman has delivered is a dispassionate and precise history, which lays out the facts in the case of Samuel Dashiell Hammett in as plain and methodical a manner as one could wish. Even if the book does begin rather too literally at the beginning (with the first recorded trace of the Hammetts in the 18th century), the first section contains an excellent and revealing account of the Hammett family background (small landowners in rural Maryland, moving a few notches up through the local social structure for a generation or two, then sliding back) and Dashiell’s early years (born in 1894 and brought up in Baltimore, the second child of Richard Hammett’s marriage to Annie Bond, a minister’s daughter from Kentucky). Layman recounts economically but vividly the circumstances in which Hammett grew up: the relative poverty, sharpened by a sense of the family’s having come down in the world, a vain, feckless father and resourceful, dominant mother, education cut short at the age of 13 to assist his father’s dubious business enterprises (all of which failed, leaving debts), and the gradual emergence of the family’s grey sheep – the lanky, taciturn youth who by the age of 20 had already gone through a succession of menial jobs, contracted venereal disease and begun to drink heavily.

By comparison with this, the account which Layman then proceeds to give of what was unquestionably the seminal experience in Hammett’s life – the period which he spent from the age of 21 to 24 working as an operative in the Baltimore office of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency – is disappointingly thin and abbreviated, with no new facts or evidence brought to light. But Layman’s narrative efficiency carries the reader smoothly onwards, through Hammett’s subsequent Army service (he was stationed near Baltimore and served for less than a year), the onset of the chronic respiratory disease which was to afflict him badly for the rest of his life, his wanderings on the West Coast and hospitalisation there, his marriage in 1921 to Josephine Dolan (a nurse whom he met in Tacoma, Washington), his settling in San Francisco, and the beginnings of his efforts to write fiction. This brings Layman to the period 1923 to 1933, the remarkable decade during which Hammett produced the host of short stories (mainly in Black Mask) and the five novels that soon made him one of the best-known and most admired of contemporary American writers; and it brings us to the first of Shadow Man’s two major faults.

Layman devotes more than a hundred pages to Hammett’s development and stature as a writer of popular fiction, and it soon becomes distressingly clear that he is simply not equipped to carry out the task of literary criticism which this entails. He makes no claim to be offering a substantial critical account of Hammett’s fiction – the stress in Shadow Man is quite explicitly on the life rather than the work. But presumably it was the work which drew Layman to the life in the first place, and Hammett’s work and critical status raise certain inevitable literary issues: the nature of ‘popular fiction’ and its actual as well as its perceived relationship to ‘literature’, the concept of genre and its formalist implications, the mythic significance of the private detective figure and other generic characters, together with the nature of the mass readership phenomenon and the centrality of conscious style (both of which are especially important in Hammett’s case). Layman is not unaware of these issues but the terms in which he approaches them are crude. Hammett’s ‘stark realism’ and ‘plausibility’ are repeatedly invoked as self-evident indicators of merit; it’s ‘imaginative’ but ‘misguided’ to interpret Red Harvest as a Marxist parable because the union leader in that novel is ‘a hollow idealist whose arguments are unpersuasive’ and because ‘there are no masses of politically dispossessed people – only a detective and a group of crooks’ – but The Dain Curse is ‘an allegory of pure evil attempting to pervert innocence’ and is ‘finally ... a successful novel that bears up fairly well under close scrutiny’. One doesn’t need to be a card-carrying deconstructionist (or even a closet one) to find this level of critical response disastrously naive. It comes as no surprise to discover, at the end, the familiar assertion that Hammett’s ‘literary accomplishment’ was ‘to elevate the American mystery novel to the level of fine literature’.

As a critical proposition, this is meaningless (what makes the mystery novel inherently inferior to ‘fine literature’, and how can one man’s work redeem such original sin?), but even within the inadequate traditionalism which this implies, Layman has very little to offer. Page after page is filled with irrelevantly detailed plot synopses; arguably, the lesser-known short stories require this, but even the five novels receive the same treatment – sometimes, weirdly, in the past tense rather than the conventional present. Moreover, Layman starts going pedantic on us: he calculates that Sam Spade’s Thursday-evening meeting with Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon took place on either the sixth or 13th of December 1928, and gives two paragraphs to a repetition of Hammett’s account, via the character of Casper Gutman, of the Hospitalers of St John – the purpose of which, it seems, is to allow Layman to observe that, contrary to what Hammett/Gutman says, the Hospitalers refused to move from Rhodes to Malta and were given four islands by Charles V, not three.

There are some crime novelists (Raymond Chandler and Eric Ambler come to mind) who owe their inflated reputations to critics who neither know nor like crime fiction; even if Hammett is one of these novelists – and he certainly suffers badly by comparison with James Crumley, John D. MacDonald and George V. Higgins, the present-day masters – he deserves more serious critical attention than Layman can manage. The next section of Shadow Man returns to biography proper, and the book picks up, weaving together the strands of Hammett’s experiences in Hollywood and his increasingly visible participation in radical politics, which was apparently encouraged by his relationship with Hellman. Layman’s organisation of his material here returns to the excellence of the opening section, and it’s refreshing to have an account of a novelist’s unhappy dealings with Hollywood which doesn’t automatically heap all the blame on those notoriously philistine and exploitative movie-moguls. But Layman’s handling of the political theme – the aspect of Hammett’s life which comes steadily to dominate the last third of the book – raises questions about the biographer’s stance.

In his preface, Layman writes disparagingly of those biographers who ‘concentrate not on the facts of an author’s life so much as on the recounting of something resembling his life story, filling the inevitable gaps with inferences and moulding material to form a smooth tale ... to get at the “truth” of an author’s character, even at the expense of the facts’. Layman rejects this approach; in Shadow Man, he goes on, ‘truth is simply what happened.’ But it’s not that simple.

Hammett’s sympathy for political radicalism appears to date from his late adolescence, when (according to his father’s subsequent allegations) he was consorting with ‘Communists’ – probably, in 1912 or so, followers of the anarchist Emma Goldman. But Hammett was constantly quarrelling with his father at this time, and such associations may have been a youthful response to a piece of family history: in 1896, Richard Hammett had ineptly switched from the Democrats to the Republicans in a vain attempt to contest a State election. Moreover, if Hammett was seriously connected with radicalism, it makes his employment soon afterwards by the Pinkerton Agency (whose involvement in strike-breaking and other anti-union activities was well-known) a very curious business on both sides, in need of further investigation. Equally deserving of inquiry is the question of Hammett’s activities, during his time with the Agency, in Anaconda, Montana, the scene of pitched battles between unions and mine-owners, the model for Personville in Red Harvest and the birthplace of his wife.

Layman more or less ignores such issues, however. He merely reports, and the same authorial stance is maintained when he comes to describe Hammett’s political actions in later life: his support for the Loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War and his endorsement of the Moscow show trials instigated by Stalin, the investigations by the FBI after his World War Two Army service in Alaska, his trusteeship of the Civil Rights Congress’s controversial bail fund and his serving of a jail sentence for contempt of court in 1951, his continued harassment by HUAC investigators and his appearance before the Committee in 1953. It’s a sad and sorry tale, and its immediate impact is all the greater for Layman’s unemotional tone, very similar to the detached, laconic voice of the disillusioned private eye as he recounts the facts which his dogged inquiries have revealed. One can have a great deal of respect for such a stance, especially when it results in a biography as solidly informative as this. But ultimately the refusal to speculate as well as to report, to weigh evidence as well as to cite it, to offer hypotheses as well as facts, all serve to limit Shadow Man, to frustrate the reader on all counts, not just the political aspect. It tells us what happened, so far as is known; in not going beyond, it leaves us suspecting that Hammett’s most enduring fictional creation was not Sam Spade or the Continental Op but his own authorial persona – and that his most complex mystery plot was the route to the self that lay behind it.