Reviewer Dr. Wesley Britton: Dr. Britton is the author of four non-fiction books on espionage in literature and the media. Starting in fall 2015, his new six-book science fiction series, The Beta-Earth Chronicles, debuted via BearManor Media. For seven years, he was co-host of online radio’s Dave White Presents where he contributed interviews with a host of entertainment insiders. Before his retirement in 2016, Dr. Britton taught English at Harrisburg Area Community College. Learn more about Dr. Britton at his WEBSITE
Publisher: Arcade Publishing, February 2014
Author: Sally Cline
Publisher: Arcade Publishing, February 2014
Most of us who remember writer Dashiel Hammett do so for his creation of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1930) and Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man (1934), although we most likely are more familiar with the film incarnations of his characters rather than his original novels. His long and complex relationship with dramatist Lillian Hellman is also the stuff of Hollywood legend. But, as Sally Cline demonstrates in her new biography of Hammett, there's much more to the story of an influential mystery writer once compared favorably with Ernest Hemingway.
In a tight, economical approach, Cline traces the trajectory of a man who is a soldier in World War I and a detective with the Pinkertons before becoming a pulp writer in order to pay his bills. After building a reputation scribing short stories for magazines, his 1929 Red Harvest was considered a breakthrough novel as it elevated the detective yarn into a genre with more literary credibility. However, he wrote only five novels in five years ending with The Thin Man and then spent his waning career with a decades long writer's block while he mentored his on-again, off-again lover, Lillian Hellman. In those years, he also briefly wrote for the Secret Agent X-9 comic strip and wrote screenplays based on his "Thin Man" characters.
Building on these contributions, Cline's biography does its best to portray Hammett's work as having both considerable literary and cultural significance, mainly by trying to analyze enigmatic moral themes in the books based on the writer's inner turmoil over his masculinity as based on then current social codes. Placing the writings in the context of the era in which Hammett was indeed innovative, she leaves his legacy in modern times an open question. This is appropriate for a writer whose style has been imitated so often, his stories now seem cliché's of tough-talking street dicks or bantering casual investigators like Nick and Nora Charles. All these years later, these types are so prevalent in mystery fiction that it's difficult to recall just how much of the landscape Hammett changed. On this level, Cline's study succeeds at providing a fresh lens into why readers should care about the life of an often reprehensible figure.
On another level, throughout The straight-forward chronology of Hammett's life, Cline bares her subject's innards, but the images are as enigmatic as his work. Rarely in good health, Hammett's life was marked by his poor and often violent treatment of women, his remote role as a father, his indifference to money, but most notably his alcoholism. Still, he was able to maintain long-term if strained relationships with friends and family while he wrestled with his loss of creativity after The Thin Man. Cline connects the dots, when possible, between the fiction and the known facts, which is often difficult for a man almost obsessively private whose words, especially his correspondence, can rarely be taken at face value.
In short, Cline was able to take existing documents, conduct new interviews, and boil down the essential Hammett into a figure she captures in just under 250 pages. Whether or not readers will accept her appreciative analysis of his writings will be an open-ended debate, especially when reviewing his books, stories, and screenplays from a 21st Century perspective. Clearly, Dashiel Hammett is worthy of new considerations of his publications, although it's doubtful many modern critics would still utter his name in the same sentence as Hemingway. Nonetheless, Man of Mystery should interest readers interested in mystery and detective stories, the films based on Hammett's work, and those wanting to explore how these works were shaped by and helped shape the times in which they were created.