Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett: 1921-1960


"Here is a volume that generations of readers have longed for - the first-ever selection from the letters of Dashiell Hammett, the onetime private detective who, in five astonishing books written between 1927 and 1933, invented the modern American crime novel. Hammett was not only the founding member of the hardboiled school, he also was its greatest practitioner, and even after Chandler and all the rest, his body of work remains the solid-gold standard. The best of his work is literature - without the quotation marks."--BOOK JACKET.
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"Here is a volume that generations of readers have longed for - the first-ever selection from the letters of Dashiell Hammett, the onetime private detective who, in five astonishing books written between 1927 and 1933, invented the modern American crime novel. Hammett was not only the founding member of the hardboiled school, he also was its greatest practitioner, and even after Chandler and all the rest, his body of work remains the solid-gold standard. The best of his work is literature - without the quotation marks."--BOOK JACKET.
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Editorial Reviews

From The Critics
That these letters read exceptionally well is no surprise: Dashiell Hammett was one of pop fiction's surest stylists. The author of five crime novels (two of them, The Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest, endure as classics) Hammett trademarked the laconic, world-weary dialogue of detective fiction and film noir. Whether writing his pulp magazine editors or his famous lover, playwright Lillian Hellman, he comes across here as authentically, contradictorily human; a man whom his daughter remembers in the introduction as one "who loved hunting, fishing and babies...who read Moon Mullins, Doc Savage and Dostoevsky." His writing years in New York and Hollywood, his soldiering in World War II, his political passion (he was briefly jailed during the Red Scare) are all here, and are conveyed in language that engagingly jumbles wit and defensiveness, cunning and tight-lipped confession. Of detective fiction Hammett wrote, "Someday somebody's going to make ‘literature' out of it...and I'm selfish enough to have my hopes." He came as close as anyone has, and these letters back up his case—clearly, observantly and with courage, the man could write.
—Paul Evans

(Excerpted Review)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Biographer Layman (Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett) and Rivett, Hammett's granddaughter, offer a deeply involving anthology of the voluminous correspondence of Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961), culled from more than 1,000 surviving letters. The result (aided immensely by detailed annotation and crisp biographical sketches) narrates Hammett's literary success and the conflicted, enigmatic life he led following publication of The Thin Man (1934), his final novel. The letters illuminate the amazing texture of Hammett's life (from his well-paid Hollywood years to the joyful patriotism of his WWII service to his searing decline due to Red baiting) and writing (from prolific pulp contributor to innovator of popular, violent novels like Red Harvest). They also limn his unusual and intense personal relationships, particularly with the women in his life his estranged wife, longtime lover Lillian Hellman and his daughters and the warmth and chivalry concealed within an oblique persona. While Hammett was not given to detailed meditation on his fictive innovations, his astute reportage of his era's literary gossip, his street-level life and his moral complexities (which, touchingly, he discussed via correspondence with his young daughter Josephine, who writes the introduction) make up for this deficit. Although this collection is richly satisfying, reading it is a bittersweet, saddening experience. One senses that Hammett was knocked about in his lifetime and undervalued, both as a writer and for his dogged pursuit of social justice. Layman and company offer an important touchstone of literary history and a book that will remain a solid backlist title for mystery devotees. Illus. not seen by PW. (May 1) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The more than 1000 lively, personal letters selected here, many hitherto unpublished, are addressed primarily to Hammett's wife; their two daughters; fellow writer Lillian Hellman, with whom he carried on a 30-odd-year liaison; and the classic crime writer's various loves. To these people, Hammett reveals himself to be, between 1927 and 1935, the hard-working inventor of both hard-boiled detective Sam Spade and delightful inebriate Nick Charles. During the war years, he comes across as a routine-loving member of the Signal Corps in the Aleutians; finally, for the last 15 years of his life, he is the tireless Communist sympathizer whose activities earn him a six-month jail sentence that wrecks his health beyond repair. Despite infrequent assertions that the mystery novel, in the right hands, might become "literature," these letters are striking for their unflagging sense that, to Hammett, writing was simply a trade to pay the bar bills and keep his little family afloat. His ebullient persona, even when he was sick and incarcerated, and his preoccupation with the homely details of living strongly suggest that behind Hammett's many letters hides a man who himself remains a mystery. Highly recommended for all libraries with extensive Hammett collections. Charles C. Nash, Cottey Coll., Nevada, MO Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
A collection of letters of Dashiell Hammett, the onetime private detective who invented the modern American crime novel. Most of the correspondence is from private collections and most of it has never been published before. Some 1,000 selections span Hammett's adulthood, from 1921 when he wrote love letters from an Army hospital, to 1960. Letters reveal his relationships with the most important people in his life, including his family and his three lovers, as well as his editors. Layman is author of the first full biography of Dashiell Hammett. Rivett is granddaughter of Dashiell Hammett. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Kirkus Reviews
An illuminating collection of the famed writer's letters. The essential Hammett paradox is that between 1927 and 1935 he wrote five detective novels that revolutionized the genre—and never completed another book. Layman (Shadow Man, not reviewed) and Hammett's granddaughter Rivett address this point in their selections and annotations, and their anthology creates a rounded portrait of the notoriously private Hammett. The letters are rich in naturalistic detail regarding his daily life in tumultuous times, and in his commentary upon Hollywood and the literary scene of the 1930s and '40s, but many fans will be disappointed that most of the letters postdate The Thin Man (1934) and only those written during the author's 1920s pulp-fiction apprenticeship discuss his writing tactics in detail. But there is good material here that sheds some light on Hammett's private life—particularly his loyalty to women, ranging from his estranged wife and daughters to the ever-present Lillian Hellman (who stood by him long after he had lost his health, talents, and friends). The WWII letters (most of them written from the remote Aleutians) reveal Hammett at his most energetic and engaged, while those composed during his barren twilight years express an unnerving lack of rancor and a modest perspective in the face of years of political persecution, ill health, and alcoholism. A fine rendering of Hammett's life in his own words—and a remarkable slice of Americana.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781582432106
  • Publisher: Counterpoint Press
  • Publication date: 5/28/2002
  • Edition description: REPRINT
  • Pages: 688
  • Sales rank: 1,382,726
  • Product dimensions: 5.96 (w) x 9.04 (h) x 1.69 (d)

Meet the Author

Dashiell Hammett
Dashiell Hammett
An elegant figure with a real background as a private eye, Hammett pioneered hard-boiled fiction with his plain-spoken dialogue and classic characters such as Sam Spade, Nick Charles, and the Continental Op. Opening the door for a slew of imitators, Hammett left an indelible mark with a relatively short body of work.


Dashiell Samuel Hammett was born in St. Mary's County. He grew up in Philadelphia and Baltimore. Hammett left school at the age of fourteen and held several kinds of jobs thereafter -- messenger boy, newsboy, clerk, operator, and stevedore, finally becoming an operative for Pinkerton's Detective Agency. Sleuthing suited young Hammett, but World War I intervened, interrupting his work and injuring his health.

When Sergeant Hammett was discharged from the last of several hospitals, he resumed detective work. He soon turned to writing, and in the late 1920s Hammett became the unquestioned master of detective-story fiction in America. In The Maltese Falcon (1930) he first introduced his famous private eye, Sam Spade. The Thin Man (1932) offered another immortal sleuth, Nick Charles. Red Harvest (1929), The Dain Curse (1929), and The Glass Key (1931) are among his most successful novels. During World War II, Hammett again served as sergeant in the Army, this time for more than two years, most of which he spent in the Aleutians.

Hammett's later life was marked in part by ill health, alcoholism, a period of imprisonment related to his alleged membership in the Communist Party, and by his long-time companion, the author Lillian Hellman, with whom he had a very volatile relationship. His attempt at autobiographical fiction survives in the story "Tulip," which is contained in the posthumous collection The Big Knockover (1966, edited by Lillian Hellman). Another volume of his stories, The Continental Op (1974, edited by Stephen Marcus), introduced the final Hammett character: the "Op," a nameless detective (or "operative") who displays little of his personality, making him a classic tough guy in the hard-boiled mold -- a bit like Hammett himself.

Author biography courtesy of Random House, Inc.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Samuel Dashiell Hammett (full name)
    1. Date of Birth:
      May 27, 1894
    2. Place of Birth:
      St. Mary, Maryland
    1. Date of Death:
      January 10, 1961
    2. Place of Death:
      New York

Table of Contents

"A Reasonable Amount of Trouble" vii
Preface xiii
A Note on the Texts xix
I. Writer, 1921-1930 1
II. Celebrity, 1931-1942 57
III. Soldier, 1942-1945 179
IV. Activist, 1945-1951 447
V. Survivor, 1952-1960 575
Coda 625
Appendix Hammett's Reading 627
Index 633
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