“From the Memoirs of a Private Detective”
Dashiell Hammett’s Real Life Cases
This article originally appeared in the March 1923 issue of The Smart Set, and recounts some of Hammett’s thoughts and experiences from his days with the ‘Pinks. It’s generally agreed that he’s pulling our legs in some cases, but it’s only been reprinted a few times and it’s still pretty hard to find, so here it is.
Please don’t tell anyone…
- Wishing to get some information from members of the WCTU in an Oregon city, I introduced myself as the secretary of the Butte City Purity League. One of them read me a long discourse on the erotic effects of cigatettes upon young girls. Subsequent experiments proved this tip worthless.
- A man whom I was shadowing went out into the country for a walk one Sunday afternoon and lost his bearings completely. I had to direct him back to the city.
- House burglarly is probably the poorest paid trade in the world. I have never known anyone to make a living at it. But for that matter few crimiinals of any class are self-supporting unless they toil at something legitimate between times. Most of them, however, live on their women.
- I know an operative who, while looking for pickpockets at the Havre de Grace race track, had his wallet stolen. He later became an official in an Eastern detective agency.
- Three times I have been mistaken for a prohibition agent, but never had any trouble clearing myself.
- Taking a prisoner from a ranch near Gilt Edge, Mont., to Lewistown one night, my machine broke down and we had to sit there until daylight. The prisoner, who stoutly affirmed his innocence, was clothed only in overalls and shirt. After shivering all night on the front seat his morale was low, and I had no difficulty in getting a complete confession from from him while walking to the nearest ranch early the following morning.
- Of all the men embezzling from their employers with whom I have had contact, I can’t remember a dozen who smoked, drank, or had any of the vices in which bonding companies are so interested.
- I was once falsely accused of perjury and had to perjure myself to escape arrest.
- A detective official in San Francisco once substituted “truthful” for “voracious” in one of my reports on the grounds that the client might not understand the latter. A few days later in another report “simulate” became “quicken” for the same reason.
- Of all the nationalities in hauled into the criminal courts, the Greek is the most difficult to convict. He simply denies everything, no matter how conclusive the proof may be; and nothing impresses a jury as a bare statement of fact, regardless of the fact’s inherent improbability or obvious absurdity in the face of overwhelmng contrary evidence.
- I know a man who will forge the impressions of any set of fingers in the world in the world for $50.
- I have never known a man capable of turning out first-rate work in a trade, a profession or an art, who was a professional criminal.
- I know a detective who once attempted to disguise himself thoroughly. The first policeman he met took him into custody.
- I know a deputy sheriff in Montana who, approaching the cabin of a homesteader for whose arrest he had a warrant, was confronted by the homesteader with a rifle in his hands. The deputy sheriff drew his revolver and tried to shoot over the homesteader’s head to frighten him. The range was long and a strong wind was blowing. The bullet knocked the rifle from the homesteader’s hands. A stime went by the deputy sheriff came to accept as the truth the reputation for expertness that this incident gave him, and he not only let his friends enter him in a shooting contest, but wagered everything he owned upon his skill. When the contest was held he missed the target completely with all six shots.
- Once in Seattle the wife of a fugitive swindler offered to sell me a photograph of her husband for $15. I knew where I could get one free so I didn’t buy it.
- I was once engaged to discharge a woman’s housekeeper.
- The slang in use among criminals is for the most part a conscious, artificial growth, designed more to confuse outsiders than for any other purpose, but sometimes it is singularly expressive; for instance, two-time loser–one who has been convicted twice; and the older gone to read and write–found it advisable to go away for a while.
- Pocket-picking is the easiest to master of all the criminal trades. Anyone who is not crippled can become adept in a day.
- In 1917, in Washington DC, I met a young lady who did not remark that my work must be very interesting.
- Even where the criminal makes no attempt to efface the prints of his fingers, but leaves them all over the scene of the crime, the chances are about one in ten of finding a print that is sufficiently clear to be of any value.
- The chief of police of a Southern city once gave me a description of a man, complete even to the mole on his neck, but neglected to mention that he had only one arm.
- I know a forger who left his wife because she learned to smoke cigarettes while he was serving a term in prison.
- Second only to Doctor Jeckyll and Mr Hyde is Raffles in the affections of the daily press. The phrase “gentleman crook” is used on the slightest provocation. A composite portrait of the gentry upon whom the newspapers have bestowed this title would show a laudanum-drinker, with a large rhinestone-horseshow aglow in the soiled bosom of his shirt below a bow-tie, leering at his victim, and saying: “Now don’t get scared, lady, I ain’t gonna crack you on the bean. I ain’t a rough-neck!”
- The cleverest and most uniformly successful detective I have ever known is extremely myopic.
- Going from the larger cities out into the remote, rural communities one finds a steadily decreasing percentage of crimes that have to do with money and a proportionate increase in the frequency of sex as a criminal motive.
- While trying to peer into the upper storey of a roadhouse in northern California one night–and the man I was looking for was in Seattle at the time–part of the porch crumbled under me and I fell, spraining an ankle. The proprietor of the roadhouse gave me water to bathe it in.
- The chief difference between the exceptionally knotty problem facing the detective of fiction and that facing the real detective is that in the former there is usually a paucity of clues, and in the latter altogether too many.
- I know a man who once stole a Ferris wheel.
- That the law breaker is invariably sooner or later apprehended is probably the least challenged of extant myths. And yet the files of every detective bureau bulge with the records of unsolved mysteries and uncaught criminals.