July 2017        

Book review

Over-boiled biography of a hard-boiled writer

David Mulligan

■ Ken Fuller, Hardboiled Activist: The Work and Politics of Dashiell Hammett (London: Praxis Press, 2017)

Spendthrift, drunkard, womaniser, Pinkerton strike-breaker, crime novelist, Hollywood screenwriter and ultimately communist activist, the subject of Ken Fuller’s recently published Hardboiled Activist: The Work and Politics of Dashiell Hammett offers the biographer reams of material.
     Born in 1894 in New York, Samuel Dashiell Hammett would go on to become one of the more interesting, if more enigmatic, writers in the United States during the early twentieth century, who, from unlikely beginnings, went on to become president of the communist-aligned League of American Writers.
     Leaving school and taking to drink at a young age (in common with many working-class writers of the period), the young Hammett was an unlikely prospect for Marxist beliefs, taking a job with the infamous Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency as a strike-breaker. Hammett at the time had few qualms about the work and would draw on his experiences when he began writing short stories for pulp magazines, becoming a pioneer of the hard-boiled detective story, which took the mystery novel out of the quaint British study of Mr Holmes to the harsh, bitter streets of the American city.
     Hammett quickly established himself in the field and, despite aspirations to more serious literature, was soon adapting his work for the big screen in Hollywood. His novels The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man would become huge hits, with Humphrey Bogart playing the no-nonsense private detective Sam Spade in the former.
     Hammett’s life up to this point had been one of nihilism and cynicism, as reflected in his writing, and the vast sums he earned from Hollywood were soon squandered on booze and prostitutes—the latter despite his relationship with his long-term partner, Lillian Hellman, who later became a renowned playwright. At this stage Hammett’s writing was beginning to dry up, and as his despair deepened he even considered suicide. These were perhaps his darkest days.
     After this depression, in or around 1937, Hammett would discover Marxism and may (or may not) have joined the Communist Party of the USA. This new purpose in his life, after his writing career dwindled to a close, saw Hammett become a prominent activist and president of the influential League of American Writers. He would stand by his political beliefs until his death, in 1961, despite the McCarthy era persecution he suffered at the hands of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the Internal Revenue Service.
     Such is the man Ken Fuller attempts to unravel in Hardboiled Activist; and although the book begins with a passable account of Hammett’s intriguing life, the rest of the book fails to hold the reader’s interest. The middle section is almost entirely taken up with tiresome and needlessly detailed synopses of virtually all Hammett’s written work. Fuller’s thesis is that—contrary to the belief of many of Hammett’s biographers—his work does not reflect his budding Marxism but rather was written before the development of his political views.
     While these chapters do offer a convincing argument for this point, they are also, unfortunately, likely to turn off any prospective readers of Hammett’s work, as they unforgivingly reveal the various plot twists and surprise endings that mark the detective writer’s work.
     The book does pick up in the latter half, where Fuller discusses Hammett’s political views and activities, including his various dealings with the US government, the highlight of which is probably the following anecdote from Hammett’s testimony before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. When asked by the red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy whether if he were in charge of fighting the spread of communism he would “purchase the works of some 75 Communists and distribute their works throughout the world,” Hammett replied that if he were fighting communism he would not give the people any books at all.
     Despite this brief revival, the book ends on a poor note, with a closing chapter about the end of Hammett’s writing career, which reads more like an appendix to a work than a chapter in a biography.
     Ultimately, while Fuller does a good job of putting Hammett’s work and life into its proper historical context, any reader not yet familiar with Hammett would be better served by reading the man’s work itself.

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