Substantial books about Hammett’s life and work today far outnumber his own famously modest output of novels and story collections. This one beckons for attention because it’s short—the main text runs to 204 pages—and because it’s relatively recent: It holds the promise of distilling several decades’ worth of accumulated research and cumulative wisdom about a genius who essentially invented a branch of American literature. So it’s unfortunate that this unevenly written survey of a writer’s life doesn’t reward even a brief investment of reading time. Cline, to her credit, appears to have read most of the now-quite-large array of primary and secondary sources about her subject, and she makes especially thorough use of material unearthed in recent years about Hammett’s relationship with his wife and two daughters. Like other students of Hammett, she also gives close scrutiny to his protean relationship with the playwright Lillian Hellman. But the biography that emerges from these scholarly endeavors offers neither a clear overview of what Hammett did and what he wrote nor a sustained argument about the meaning of his actions and achievements. It’s a helter-skelter jaunt through a life that merits careful, analytically sophisticated study.
Cline’s title holds real promise, even if the book fails to deliver on it. What, after all, is the core “mystery” of this man? One conventional, and not altogether wrong, formulation of the Hammett conundrum focuses on the question of why he essentially stopped writing after producing several dozen genre-defining short tales and five landmark novels between 1922 and 1933. Why did a writer who worked so diligently to reach the pinnacle of success all but give up on creating new, published work during the nearly three decades that remained of his life? The standard explanations seem valid enough: drink, politics, the sublimation of Hammett’s own productive energies in an effort to support Hellman’s career.
Yet perhaps the more salient mystery concerns his motivation for writing works such as The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key in the first place. Cline presents glimpses of an explanation, including this oft-quoted passage from a letter that Hammett sent in 1928 to the publisher Blanche Knopf: “I’m one of the few—if there are any more—people moderately literate who take the detective story seriously. … Some day somebody’s going to make ‘literature’ of it, … and I’m selfish enough to have my hopes.” Of course Hammett wrote for money, and for fame, and there were brief periods when he applied to literary work the same stoic professionalism that the Continental Op applied to investigative work. Deep down, though, he aspired to create fiction that would transfigure the form of his chosen genre. In fact, he did so, and did it more than once. (Each of his five novels in effect launched a major subgenre—from Red Harvest, which inspired a slew of tales about a lone hero who battles an entire corrupt town, to The Thin Man, which became the template for countless books and movies that feature a wise-cracking, crime-solving couple.) Then, once Hammett had fully stretched his talents in this way, he appears to have lost interest in using them. One gets the sense that he saw no middle ground between generating a masterwork and generating hackwork. As this biography inadvertently demonstrates, he was not so much a “man of mystery” as he was a man of supreme (and ultimately spoiled) ambition.