Dashiell Hammett (Rest in Pieces)

Fictionalized by Joe Gores and others

Joe Gores‘ fictional, but affectionate, take on former Pinkerton man DASHIELL HAMMETT, the creator of Sam Spade and The Continental Op, pushing aside the typewriter and getting “back on the game”, as a favor for a pal. Set in San Francisco in 1928, it’s part biography and part novel.

In fact, it’s quite an enjoyable book, and went on to become (eventually) an arguably enjoyable film. Production problems, a screenplay reportedly written by a cast of thousands, and a less-than-clear sense of direction by Wim Wenders hindered the film, but it’s still worth a look. It’s fun to watch for “quotes” from other movies and Hammett’s own work, not to mention some intriguing cameos (notably those of crimewriter Ross Thomas and Elisha Cook Jr.), and it’s not a bad P.I. flick, either. Sure, both the book and the film deal with an “entirely imaginary story”, but if you ask me there’s far more “truth” in both of them than in the disappointing 1999 A&E TV biopic Dash and Lilly.

By the way, Frederic Forrest, who played Hammett in the film, reprised the role several years later, in a scene in the 1992 TV flick Citizen Cohn, where Cohn (played by James Woods) and Senator McCarthy are badgering Hammett to divulge the names of some suspected Communists. Hammett replies by quoting Lewis Carroll. It’s a short scene, but a good one.

But the best portrayal of Hammett on film belongs to Jason Robards, who plays Hammett to Jane Fonda’s Lillian Hellman in Julia (1977), as a man caught somewhere between his better angels and his personal demons. It’s a towering performance that netted Robards his second consecutive Oscar.

Gores, of course, knows something about real-life San Francisco private eyes who become writers. He’s the creator of the DKA series, and a handful of other quality work in the genre.

* * * * *

Mind you, Gores wasn’t the first one to take a stab at fictionalizing Hammett. Way back in 1935, “Anonymous” (actually Philip Wylie and Bernard A. Bergman) produced a “first-rate satircal farce” (according to Time) of a novel called The Smiling Corpse, in which mystery writers G.K. Chesterton (Father Brown), S.S. Van Dine (Philo Vance), Sax Rohmer (Fu Manchu) and Hammett “find themselves in a murder.” Naturally, each of them goes about trying to solve the case in the manner of their most famous creations. It was pretty well received at the time, getting thumbs-up from the New York Herald-Tribune, Saturday Review of Literature, Time and The New York Times.

Like Raymond Chandler, Hammett has been dragged into all sorts of fictional shenanigans — including the notoriously dreadful Chandler (1977) by William Denbow, which has Chandler–now a hard-boiled private eye!–out to help Dashiell Hammett, who’s in a bit of a jam. The plot didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but at least it was horribly written and historically dubious.

Far more respectful was William Nolan’s knowing trilogy, appropriately titled The Black Mask Boys, which featured pulp writers Erle Stanley Gardner, Chandler and Hammett taking turns acting as amateur sleuths. The first book in the series, The Black Mask Murders (1994), appropiately enough featured Hammett, and he appeared in the two subsequent novels, The Marble Orchard (1996) and Sharks Never Sleep (1998), as a major supporting player.

One of the more entertaining romps featuring the Hammett that might have been is Mike Doogan’s 2002 short story, “War Can Be Murder,” wherein the no-longer-young “Sam” Hammett stationed in Alaska during World War II, plays amateur sleuth (and shows up drunk at a party, offering a few politically-incorrect — and still timely — words on war). For those familiar with Hammett’s biography, it’s a lot of fun. Certainly, the Mystery Writers of America thought so — they bestowed the 2002 Robert L. Fish Memorial Award upon Doogan for the story.

But the fictional Hammett continued to be a prescence in crime fiction. In 2006, he materialized as a ghost in a Robert J. Randisi story, “Call Me Sam,” in Kolchak: The Night Stalker Casebook, a collection of stories featuring television’s ghost-chasing reporter Carl Kolchak.

In 2009, Ace Atkins, best known at the time for his series of books about crime-solving blues historian Nick Travers and later for taking over the Spenser series after Robert B. Parker‘s demise, imagined young Pinkerton agent Hammett hired to on behalf on behalf of silent film star “Fatty” Arbuckle, whose been charged with murder, following the unfortunate death of an actress at one of his wild parties. Based on true incidents (Hammett was reportedly involved in the case), Devil’s Garden is a flawed but intriguing look at not just one of the more overlooked periods of Hammett’s life, but also one of the most notorious, star-studded scandals of the twentieth century — and one of the few Max Allan Collins’ Nate Heller seems to have missed.

In 2011, Hammett was back yet again, this time as a major character in Bradley Denton’s emotionally stoked “The Adakian Eagle,” in the “urban fantasy” anthology Down These Strange Streets. The short story is narrated by a young soldier stationed in the Aleutians who is dispatched, along with Dashiell “Pop” Hammett, the editor of the base newspaper, to investigate the strange mutilation of an eagle on a desolate moutainside. Even if you know nothing about Hammett’s life–but especially if you do–the ending will rock you.

Perhaps the most audacious resurrection of Hammett yet, though, was the quirky meta-novel Hammett Unwritten (2013) by Owen Fitzstephen, with notes and illustrations by Gordon McAlpine (Fitzstephen’s real name), which boldly posits that Hammett’s last case as a Pinkerton agent involved the real Maltese Falcon, and that it was possession of the statuette, which he kept as a memento, that was responsible for his subsequent literary success. When the statuette is lost, Hammett’s decades-long writer’s block begins, as well as Hammett’s life-long search for the missing black bird. Publishers Weekly tagged it “An imaginative mashup of meta-mystery with meta-biography… fans of Hammett and noir ought to enjoy requisite shocks of recognition.” “Owen Fitzstephen,” it should be noted, is a dissolute, alcoholic writer who appears in Hammett’s novel The Dain Curse. Several folks have noted that the physical description of the character closely resembled Hammett himself.

But apparently, however, Fitzstephen wasn’t finished with Hammett after all. In 2020, he returned with The Big Man’s Daughter, a sort of cock-eyed retelling of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, with a little Wizard of Oz on the side.

If that’s too post-post modernist for you, though, the star-studded historical romp, Ragtime Cowboys (2014, has a real old-fashioned cheesiness to it that might be more to your liking. Estleman, an award-winning author known for both his westerns and his crime novels (notably his series featuring Detroit private eye Amos Walker) has a pre-fame Hammett hooking up with fellow former Pinkerton op in 1921 Hollywood. Along for the ride are Wyatt Earp, Jack London and Joseph Kennedy.

Dashiell Hammett was–by most accounts–a real guy.


  • Hammett Unwritten is full of brilliant one-liners and twists. Even a hardcore fan whoís read a biography or two might be surprised by all the details. Facts are cleverly sandwiched among a dozen falsehoods, and by the end a reader almost buys the half-truth that Owen Fitzstephen wrote this novel. Mystery lovers, especially hardboiled fans, should appreciate this satisfying con and double-cross perpetuated by Gordon McAlphine.”
    — Rachel Anne Calabia (The San Francisco Book Review)




  • HAMMETT Buy this video Buy this DVD Watch it now!
    (1983, Orion Pictures/Warner Brothers)
    95 minutes
    Based on the novel by Joe Gores
    Adaptation by Thomas Pope
    Screenplay by Ross Thomas and Dennis O’Flaherty
    Directed by Wim Wenders
    Executive Producer: Francis Ford Coppola
    A Zoetrope Studios Production
    Starring Frederick Forrest as DASHIELL HAMMETT
    Also starring Peter Boyle, Marilu Henner, Elisha Cook, Jr., Roy Kinnear, Lydia Lei, R.G. Armstrong, Richard Bradford, Michael Chow, David Patrick Kelly, Sylvia Sidney, Jack Nance, Elmer L. Kline, Royal Dano, Samuel Fuller
    Cameo by Ross Thomas


Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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