Forgotten Hammett: A Long Lost Interview

House Burglary Poor Trade
By Helen Herbert Foster

Fall-Winter 1929, The Brooklyn Eagle Magazine

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.

Nor have I have ever known a man capable of turning out first-class work in a trade, a profession or an art who was a professional criminal.

House burglary is probably the poorest trade in the world—I have never known any one to make a living at it.

Pocket picking is the easiest to master of all the criminal trades. Any one who is not crippled can become an adept at it in a day.

These are the opinions of Dashiell Hammett, formerly a Pinkerton man, and now a writer of detective stories, among which Red Harvest and The Dain Curse are well known. And though Mr. Hammett tells us about many people, there are few more interesting than himself. Until he began writing fiction he had no writing experience except that of writing letters and daily reports for headquarters.

It seems, according to Mr. Hammett, that to be a good detective, one must have a gift for poking one’s nose into other people’s business. Doubtless many of us know people—ourselves, of course, never!—who, we think, could qualify in this respect. But that’s only the beginning.

“For being a professional busybody requires more energy, more dogged patience than you’d suppose. I got so tired of it that I just had to give it up, though I have a flair for that kind of thing. There was never anything lacking in the matter of my curiosity. It’s not an easy business. A good detective is quite a person. He is a type that has always intrigued me. And for that reason I never subordinate his personality to the plot of my story.”

Naturally enough, the detective as a study would interest Mr. Hammett. And well it might. Some of the greatest writers of the past have studied the detective’s curious makeup. Victor Hugo in his immortal “Jean Valjean” tells us of a crack detective, Javeret by name, who either had to be that or a first class crook. The physical machinery, so to speak, of a good sleuth is a complicated thing and worthy of the pen of a competent writer.

“What I try to do is write a story about a detective rather than a detective story. Keeping the reader fooled until the last, possible moment is a good trick and I usually try to play it, but I can’t attach more than secondary importance to it. The puzzle isn’t so interesting to me as the behavior of the detective attacking it.”

And so Dashiell Hammett has given us a hard-boiled little “op,” a close-up of him at work. And an “op,” as every reader of detective stories should know—and who is not these days when presidents and prime ministers admit a weakness for them?—is a man who does in real life what the “master detective” does in fiction. He is, in short, an operative.

“The op I use,” says Hammett, “is the typical sort of private detective that exists in our country today. I’ve worked with half a dozen men who might be he with few changes. Though he may be different in fiction, he is almost pure ‘type’ in life. I’ve always tried to hold him as close to the ‘type’ as possible because what I see in him is a little man going forward day after day through mud and blood and death and deceit—as callous and brutal and cynical as is necessary—towards a dim goal, with nothing to push him or pull him towards it except that he’s been hired to reach it—a sort of Manuel whose saying is: ‘The job’s got to be done.’ But please don’t think I suppose that I’ve been altogether successful in translating him to the printed page—I admit having moments when I think I’m having a little luck.”

When Mr. Hammett speaks you just have to watch your step. You have the feeling he’s setting traps for you to fall into. And maybe he is. He’s cynically funny, though one of the most genial people you’d want to meet.

“I knew a man who once stole a Ferris wheel,” he said. “And then there was the man I shadowed out into the country for a walk one Sunday afternoon who lost his bearings completely and I had to direct him back to the city. And I once knew a detective who attempted to disguise himself so thoroughly that the first policeman he met took him under arrest. And then there was the man I knew, and still know, who will forge the impressions of any set of fingers in the world for only fifty dollars—and then there was—

“This is what you wanted to hear, wasn’t it?” he said, smilingly interrupting himself. “All reporters want to hear such experiences from detectives. And these are authentic enough, goodness knows.”

“It couldn’t be so long ago,” we commented, trying to get in the spirit of his genial mood. “You don’t look very old.”

“No indeed. I’m not at all old. I’m quite young. I’m just 35 and what might be called of the ‘younger generation of writers.’ Surprising, isn’t it, how old the younger generation can be?

“So then I can proceed to the fact that I was brought up in Philadelphia—though I wouldn’t emphasize that too strongly—and in Baltimore. There isn’t much to be said for my education, for I had little of it. I left school at 14, in the middle of my first high school year.

“My first dive into bread-winning was a messenger boy for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, though I had tipped my toes in before that by selling newspapers after school. Later I drew wages as a junior clerk, very junior, in an advertising office. Then I went into a stockbroker’s office—but let me pause here. Things come to mind.

“I was often fired, I’ll admit that. But always most amiably. So much so that I was always on good terms with my ex-employers after. But about the stockbroker’s. There was a place. It seemed that I could seldom get the same approximate total twice in succession out of any column of figures, but still more seldom managed to get down early enough in the day to make any of my mistakes before noon. And they had a weird notion that one should be there all day. Well, of course, when such a situation arises something is bound to happen. It did.

“Maybe I should have gone in for journalism. But let me get on with this story of my life and get the agony over with. After the stockbroker’s I became a timekeeper in a cannery and in a machine shop and from that the way was easy to that of a stevedore. I made the grade but then it became too strenuous.

“Now I approach, chronologically, when I became a detective. I was attached to a national agency as an operative, before and after the war, in the East, Northwest, and on the Pacific Coast. I was a pretty good sleuth, but a bit overrated because of the plausibility with which I could explain away my failures proving them inevitable and no fault of mine.

“You’ll want to hear of my war record, no doubt. Frankly, it was dull. I contributed practically nothing to the Allied victory. I came out of my uniform with tuberculosis, which later sent me to a couple of hospitals for seven or eight months.

“When the Tijuana racing season closed in the spring of 1921, I left the last of these hospitals—just outside of San Diego—and brought my still frayed lungs to San Francisco, where I returned to sleuthing. But that didn’t last long. My health continued to go blooey and I was getting tired of butting into other people’s business. That’s where you never can tell about the neighborhood busybody’s ability to be a professional; it takes perseverance. I lacked the drive to keep it going at par.

“Well, by this time I had a wife and daughter, and they were to be somewhat housed, clothed and fed.

“I decided to become a writer.

“It was a good idea. Having had no experience whatever in writing, except writing letters and reports, I wasn’t handicapped by exaggerated notions of the difficulties ahead. By the end of the year writing was supporting us in so far as we were being supported at all.”

This, then, was Dashiell Hammett’s story of how he began writing, and it is a story, you will admit, that one doesn’t hear every day. After he began wielding his pen he stuck right to it except for a few excursions into advertising, “to pick up a few dollars.”

“There’s another weakness I possess that I haven’t confessed: I’m an artist, or nearly. That is, I have a tendency to fritter away time over a drawing board trying to make black marks come out beautiful on white paper, which they seldom, if ever, do.”

In the fall of 1927 a lot of doctors—yes, a lot of ’em, he said, and one professor—told him his lungs were all right. To date he sees no reason for doubting they knew what they were talking about.

“Detecting has its high spots,” said he in a somewhat more serious vein, “but the run of the work is the most monotonous that any one could imagine. The very things that can be made to sound the most exciting in the telling are in the doing usually the most dully tiresome.

“Up to the time I became a sleuth, I liked gumshoeing—did I forget to give you the details of that experience?—better than anything I had done before. But at that I wasn’t such a rotten sleuth. Thanks to my ability to write pleasing and convincing reports, my reputation was always a little more than I deserved. A couple times I was offered official jobs but dodged them since by then I was about fed up.

“I wish we had lots of time for I’m just remembering other things that might interest you. I’d like to tell you of the chief of police of a southern city who once gave me a minute description of a man down to the mole on his neck, but neglected to mention that he had only one arm. Then there was the forger who left his wife because she had learned to smoke cigarettes while he was serving a term in prison. Sleuthing has its funny side though it’s trying work. A good detective has to be brave, vigorous, damnably clever, tireless—altogether a real person. He is an extraordinarily complicated mechanism.”

* * * * *

Respectfully submitted by Ben Solomon, 2012. Ben was the creator of The Hard-Boiled Detective, a subscription-based pulp mag on the web featuring an unnamed, tough-as-nails private dick. It was a delicious and unapologetic throwback to another, simpler era; an era of broad-shouldered he-men and soft-shouldered broads, where fedoras and trenchoats are the order of the day and the roscoes spit ka-chow ka-chow all night long. It was also a certified hoot.

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