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Samuel Dashiell Hammett was born in rural Maryland in 1894. As a boy he wanted to read all the books in the Baltimore public library, but he had to quit high school at the age of fourteen to help with family finances. At twenty-one, he became an operative of the famous Pinkerton National Detective Agency, a position he held from 1915 until 1921. He was granted a leave from Pinkerton's to serve in the Army Motor Ambulance Corps in World War One. This service did not take him overseas and was ended by a bout of tuberculosis from which he never really recovered good health. Following his medical discharge from the Army, he returned to Pinkerton's but his continued ill health forced him to resign. It was then that he began writing crime stories for pulp magazines, especially Black Mask. He became the leading writer of the "hard-boiled" school, turning out stories at an amazing rate. This was followed by publication of five highly successful novels: Red Harvest (1929), The Dain Curse (1929), The Maltese Falcon (1930), The Glass Key (1931), and The Thin Man (1934). While he continued to write occasional short non-fiction pieces and contributed to several screenplays, Hammett's period of literary productivity ended with The Thin Man.
Despite his continuing ill health and being 48 years old, Hammett enlisted in the Army again in World War Two. For three years he edited a newspaper for the troops in the combat zone of the Aleutian Islands. Following the war, he became Vice President of the Civil Rights Congress of New York. In 1951 he refused to give information about four members of the group who were Communists and was sentenced to prison for six months at the age of 57. In 1953, he was an unfriendly witness appearing before Senator McCarthy's infamous investigations committee. Like others who stood up for their rights he paid a high price with cancellation of the three radio programs based on his characters, removal of his novels from many public libraries, and IRS siezure of all new income from publications or productions of his work. Hammett died in 1961.
A majority of his short stories and the first two novels feature an unnamed operative of the Continental Detective Agency, who has become known as "the Continental Op." The Continental Detective Agency is clearly modeled on Pinkerton's and the Continental Op is apparently based on one (or several) of Hammett's fellow Pinkerton operatives. The fictional city of Poisonville and the violent events that occur there in Red Harvest are modeled on Butte, Montana and Hammett's experiences there as a union-busting Pinkerton man. While I find some of the Continental op short stories very entertaining, I have never cared much for Red Harvest and The Dain Curse is so over the top that it seems to me that it must be taken as a tongue-in-cheek parody.
Private eye Sam Spade, in The Maltese Falcon and several short stories, bears more of a resemblance to Hammett himself but operates free from the constraints of a large organization. The protagonist of The Glass Key, Ned Beaumont, is not a detective per se but many feel that he is closer to Hammett in character, manner, and description than either Spade or the Op. The mystery of The Thin Man is solved by retired detective Nick Charles who has been described as an older Sam Spade and is partnered with his wife Nora who Hammett stated was based on his lover, playwright Lillian Hellman. These are the three novels that convince me of Hammett's literary greatness. Of the three my favorite is the less well known The Glass Key.
The Dain Curse was made into a six hour miniseries in 1978 starring James Coburn as "Hamilton Nash" -- the Op's name in this adaptation. Coburn looked quite a bit like Hammett but nothing at all like the description of the Continental Op from the books and stories. An operatic version of Red Harvest is reportedly in development and one scene from it has been presented in workshop in New York City.
The Maltese Falcon was filmed for the first time in 1931 with Ricardo Cortez in the role of Sam Spade and Bebe Daniels as Ruth Wonderly/ Bridgid O'Shaugnessy. It was filmed again in 1936, as more of a screwball comedy than a mystery, under the title Satan Met a Lady with Warren William as Ted Shane (Spade), Betty David as Valerie Purvis (Miss Wonderly), and Alison Skipworth as a female Casper Gutman --Madam Barabas. The classic version was John Huston's production in 1941 starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor with a brilliant supporting cast featuring Sideney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook, Jr., Barton MacLane, Ward Bond, and a brief cameo by the director's father Walter Huston.
Radio dramatizations of the Maltese Falcon were broadcast in 1943 and 1946. The 1943 version was a full hour and starred Edward G. Robinson as Spade and Laird Cregar as Gutman. The 1946 version, with Bogart, Astor and Greenstreet returning to their motion picture roles, was only thirty minutes long and generally inferior to the 1943 production. The Adventures of Sam Spade ran on radio from 1946 thru 1951 starring Howard Duff.
In 1934, The Thin Man was adapted as a motion picture whose success gave rise to a highly popular series of movies all starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. It was also presented as a radio drama that same year with the same stars and gave rise to a continuing radio program that ran from 1946 thru 1950. From 1957 thru 1960, Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk starred in the half-hour television series that introduced me to the characters of Nick and Nora. Later Craig Stevens and Jo Ann Pflug starred in a 1975 pilot for a proposed more "adult" version for late night TV.