Dashiell Hammett, author of such firmly canonized works of detective fiction—The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man—led a personal life as troubled as those of his protagonists. This new, streamlined biography by Cline (Zelda Fitzgerald: Her Voice in Paradise) takes us from his military service in WWI and career as a young private detective, through his uneasy literary stardom, and finally through his battles with ill respiratory health, and a case of writer's block that prevented him from producing any substantial work for most of his later life. Most uncomfortable are accounts of Hammett's uneasy relationships with the two major female figures in his life, his wife Josephine, and playwright Lillian Hellman, a mentee who, in a twisted way, seems to have added love and purpose to the last part of a rather unhappy life, despite his scandalous infidelity and cruelty to her. Told in a style that sometimes mixes verifiable fact with informed speculation about the subject's state of mind and inner turmoil, Cline makes the case for Hammett as a literary stylist on par with his contemporaries Hemingway and Faulkner, and convincingly parallels the known facts about his youth to the themes of his writing. Agent: Rachel Calder, Sayle Literary Agents. (Feb.)
“Succeeds in breathing fresh life into this Jazz-Age icon. . . . This haunting rendition of [Zelda’s] life reminds us why her story continues to captivate.”
“Powerful, tragic, and engrossing . . . Zelda’s voice, perhaps for the first time, becomes fully audible.”
“VERDICT: Man of Mystery delivers the goods on Hammett, in brief. . . . Keeping her subject squarely in focus, [Cline] offers a fairly succinct overview of his personality and career. Her analyses of his novels including The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, are lean. . . . What is found in abundance are salacious details, presented in standard linear narrative, as Hammettlifetime consumptive, philander, and inebriate extraordinairetreats people badly against an endless backdrop of crummy apartments, hotel penthouses, jail cells, army barracks, and Hollywood locales. . . . An entertaining and informative read.”Library Journal
“Extremely well-written, it provides the best account thus far of Hammett’s view of life.”National Review
“Sally Cline has captured the essence of Dashiell Hammett in a fast-paced and entertaining exploration of his life and his work. In pages filled with absorbing detail, Cline provides a scholarly reinterpretation with which future writers will have to grapple. This is an important achievement!"
Alice Kessler-Harris, R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of History, Columbia University, and author of A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman
“Sympathetically written and scrupulously researched, Sally Cline’s Dashiell Hammett corrects the record and offers new insights into this complex and enigmatic man, giving us a vivid portrait not only of Hammett but also of his world and circle." Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, author of Mencken: the American Iconoclast
“Sally Cline's Dashiell Hammett is incisive and authoritative, and especially good at seeing Hammett in the context of his times.” Diane Johnson, author of Flyover Lives: A Memoir, Le Mariage, and Dashiell Hammett: A Life
Cline (Zelda Fitzgerald: Her Voice in Paradise) delivers the first biography in decades to scrutinize the life of American writer Dashiell Hammett (1894–1961). Keeping her subject squarely in focus, she offers a fairly succinct overview of his personality and career. Her analyses of his novels including The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man are lean, and she provides just enough contextual historical asides to keep the reader away from Google. What is found in abundance are salacious details, presented in standard linear narrative, as Hammett—lifetime consumptive, philander, and inebriate extraordinaire—treats people badly against an endless backdrop of crummy apartments, hotel penthouses, jail cells, army barracks, and Hollywood locales. Although an entertaining and informative read, the book would benefit from more in-text notations linking passages to the endnotes. And while Cline's original research (gleaned from her interviews with Hammett's circle) is well documented, this reviewer would have appreciated seeing more of how the archival collections and earlier Hammett biographies in the bibliography contributed to her study. VERDICT Man of Mystery delivers the goods on Hammett, in brief. Consequently, its appeal should lie mainly with fans of the author, with additional appeal for students of the hard-boiled-detective school of fiction. Its casual, earthy tone may turn off readers expecting a more scholarly treatment.—Chris Wieman, Univ. of the Sciences Libs., Philadelphia
Concise biography of Dashiell Hammett (1894–1961), literary pioneer and luckless radical. Royal Society of Arts fellow Cline (Zelda Fitzgerald, 2012, etc.) argues that despite his limited output, Hammett "transformed and subverted the detective novel form by his moral vision, propelling the mystery genre into literature." Certainly, Hammett's raucous life—bridging the hardscrabble, proletarian 19th century and the slick, unforgiving postwar era—taught him hard moral lessons that informed his fiction. His story is well-known, although Cline provides new insights via her interviews with Hammett's daughter Jo. Following an apathetic youth, Hammett was thrust into manhood by service in World War I and early employment with the Pinkerton Detective Agency. These transformative experiences gave Hammett discipline and a fondness for masculine environments while sparking his complex relationship with money and the working class. Once he began placing stories in magazines like Black Mask, he became prolific, producing his five novels in a six-year period. Lean, intense books like The Maltese Falcon (1930) proved popular enough to fundamentally alter the American pop-culture vocabulary, just before the Depression. Hammett then veered away from his literary ambitions: He drank excessively for the next two decades, harming his already fragile health, tried his fortunes in Hollywood with diminishing returns and famously embarked upon a contentious yet mutually nurturing relationship with Lillian Hellman. Hammett volunteered for service in World War II yet was pursued by the FBI during the Red Scare of the 1950s, serving time in federal prison rather than testifying about his leftist connections. Although Cline discusses the plots and literary qualities of Hammett's novels, she generally connects such elements back to the author's increasingly complicated personal life and the tenor of his times, an approach which makes this brief biography seem efficiently rendered. Crisp portrait of the life and social environment of a principled, self-destructive, singular cultural figure.