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Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett [Hardcover]

Dashiell Hammett , Richard Layman , Julie M. Rivett
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

April 5 2001
A literary event: the letters, both private and professional, of Dashiell Hammett, creator of Sam Spade and father of the hardboiled crime novel.

In his five great crime novels, all of them written in a magnificent burst of creativity between 1927 and 1935, Dashiell Hammett gave America a cast of immortal characters-Sam Spade, the Continental Op, and Nick and Nora Charles, mold-breaking, red-blooded alternatives to Sherlock Holmes and Lord Peter Wimsey. In the words of Raymond Chandler, Hammett "gave murder back to the kind of people who commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought dueling pistols." A popular writer from the start, he aspired to a higher goal. As he was working on his classic The Maltese Falcon, he wrote a letter to his publisher about the potential of the detective-story form: "Someday somebody's going to make 'literature' out of it...and I'm selfish enough to have my hopes."

Though Hammett's work is admired by millions, the man himself has always been an enigma. Now, at last, comes a volume of his letters, revealing not only the private man but also the hard-working-and hard-living-professional. Yes, he was part cynical tough guy, like Sam Spade; he was part sophisticated inebriate, like Nick Charles. But the character of Dashiell Hammett was too complex to be easily categorized. His letters to his family, lovers, and colleagues show his personal warmth, his political commitment, his wide-ranging intellectual curiosity. With wit, intelligence, and style, these letters further confirm Hammett's extraordinary talent as writer and observer.


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Penzler Pick, April 2001: What seems a long overdue volume is finally making its appearance. (After all, The Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler was published 20 years ago.) Here, in more than 600 pages crammed with important as well as intimate letters, is a view into the mind of the most important American mystery writer of the 20th century. While I don't believe Hammett could carry Chandler's pen when it came to literary excellence, it's fair to say that Chandler couldn't have published much had Hammett not made the private eye novel both popular and acceptable in the world of American letters.

While I don't recommend starting at the beginning and reading straight through to the end, you can dip into virtually any letter and find an interesting sentence, a fresh way of looking at something seemingly familiar, or learn something you didn't know about Hammett and the people he knew. Take, for example, this brief note to his publisher, Alfred Knopf, in October 1934. The Thin Man had been published in January of that year and was by far Hammett's most successful book. Knopf wanted to capitalize on that success and attempted to get a sixth novel out of his author. Hammett wrote back: "Dear Alfred--So I'm a bum--so what's done of the book looks terrible--so I'm out here (Beverly Hills) drowning my shame in M-G-M money for 10 weeks."

And isn't this interesting? Hammett was stationed in Alaska during World War II and had an active correspondence with Lillian Hellman but also with Prudence Whitfield, the wife of Raoul Whitfield, a fellow Black Mask writer and one of Hammett's closest friends. So Hammett writes to Hellman on May 6, then again on June 3, saying "I know I'm a lowdown bastard not to have written you in all this time..." Well, he was probably right. In the interim, he'd written to Prudence, signing off with "Good night, darling, and much love..." Is there anyone out there who doesn't believe there may have been a bit of hanky-panky with his best friend's wife while darling Lillie remained sublimely unaware?

There's so much more here I could quote for pages. Nice letters to his daughters, Josephine (who wrote an introduction to this book) and Mary; correspondence with other famous writers, his publisher, the editor of Black Mask, etc. There is also a splendid editing job by Richard Layman, probably the country's leading authority on Hammett. His expertise as Hammett's biographer and bibliographer has made his footnotes useful in putting into context the references that may be obscure to some readers.

Here is a book worthy to stand right next to The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, Red Harvest,The Dain Curse, and The Thin Man on your bookshelf. --Otto Penzler

From Publishers 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.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


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SAMUEL DASHIELL HAMMETT was born on May 27, 1894, in rural Saint Mary's County, Maryland. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Looking over the Thin Man's Shoulder Aug. 27 2001
Format:Hardcover
Reading this collection of letters by the author of "The Maltese Falcon" and other great mystery novels provides a revealing insight to the thoughts and feelings of this intensely private man. Peppered with delightful sides of humor it is easily readable. One can dip into one or another of the phases of his life: the early short story years, his service in World War I, fame and fortune in books, radio, and film; marriage, fatherhood, divorce, romances, chiefly with Lillian Hellman, service in Alaska in WWII, his jailing for defying the anti-communism of the 50's, his final illness, poverty, and death. In letters to Hellman, and his own daughters, Mary and Josephine he comments with a a few words on hundreds of books he read. A compendium of the books fills five and one-half pages at the end of the book. There is no explicit explanation of why his voice fell silent after his brilliant novels, but the perceptive reader is given clues in the man's own words, written with no intention to have them preserved for history but fortunately available to us now.
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Amazon.com: 4.6 out of 5 stars  5 reviews
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Looking over the Thin Man's Shoulder Aug. 27 2001
By Joseph J. Needleman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Reading this collection of letters by the author of "The Maltese Falcon" and other great mystery novels provides a revealing insight to the thoughts and feelings of this intensely private man. Peppered with delightful sides of humor it is easily readable. One can dip into one or another of the phases of his life: the early short story years, his service in World War I, fame and fortune in books, radio, and film; marriage, fatherhood, divorce, romances, chiefly with Lillian Hellman, service in Alaska in WWII, his jailing for defying the anti-communism of the 50's, his final illness, poverty, and death. In letters to Hellman, and his own daughters, Mary and Josephine he comments with a a few words on hundreds of books he read. A compendium of the books fills five and one-half pages at the end of the book. There is no explicit explanation of why his voice fell silent after his brilliant novels, but the perceptive reader is given clues in the man's own words, written with no intention to have them preserved for history but fortunately available to us now.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hammett's Interests & Values in His Own Words. An Excellent Supplement to a Biography. Aug. 21 2006
By mirasreviews - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
"Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett" includes 950 letters that Dashiell Hammett wrote between 1921 and 1960, spanning most of his adult life, from before his marriage to Josephine Dolan to just months before his death in 1961 -though the meaty correspondence stops a few years before that. Daughter Josephine Hammett Marshall started the project, and she nicely summarizes what these letters say about her father in the book's foreword. Editor (and Hammett biographer) Richard Layman discusses the sources in the preface. The letters were addressed to at least 17 different people plus some miscellaneous correspondence, but the most frequent recipients, in descending order, are: Hammett's friend and companion, the playwright Lillian Hellman; daughter Mary Hammett; daughter Josephine Hammett; wife Josephine Dolan Hammett; girlfriend Pru Whitfield; and Hellman's secretary Nancy Bragdon. End notes identify people and other references in each letter where needed.

The letters are organized chronologically into 5 sections, each introduced by an explanation of the circumstances of Hammett's life during the relevant time period. Part 1 (1921-1930), entitled "Writer", spans Hammett's married life, often strained by his tuberculosis and efforts to make ends meet, and the bulk of his literary achievement, beginning with early Black Mask magazine correspondence and ending with editing frustrations at Knopf. Part 2 (1931-1942), entitled "Celebrity", introduces paramour Lillian Hellman, to whom Hammett wrote longer, more formal letters than he did to his wife, discussing literature, career, and mutual friends. Teenaged daughter Mary engaged her father by asking him about the Spanish Civil War and emerging Nazi power, subjects for which he held passionate opinions, so Hammett's letters to Mary reveal his politics and values.

Part 3 (1942-1945), entitled "Soldier", is the longest section but spans the shortest period of time. Dashiell Hammett enlisted in the Army at the age of 48, eager to serve his country in its fight against fascism. He was stationed in the Aleutian islands, where he edited "The Adakian", a camp newspaper with distribution of 3,000-5,000. Perhaps due to Army discipline or the scarcity of alcohol, Hammett was a prolific correspondent during this time. He writes mostly of daily camp life and most frequently to Lillian Hellman, whose secretary provided Hammett with material for his newspaper. Part 4 (1945-1951), entitled "Activist", finds Hammett with a new sense of purpose after the War. He taught mystery writing at the Jefferson School for Social Science in Manhattan, campaigned for civil rights, and became active in communist organizations. Daughter Josephine Marshall was married by this time and a frequent correspondent -also during the 5 months Hammett spent in jail for contempt of court in connection with the Civil Rights Congress bail fund.

Part 5 (1952-1960), entitled "Survivor", is a miscellany of letters that reveal a man with diminishing vigor. He seems to have little strength left for discussions or details but always a warm, supportive word for his family. In the back of the book, there is a list of the books to which Hammett refers and an index (mostly people and titles). I have read 2 Dashiell Hammett biographies. These letters don't change my impression of Hammett, but reinforce it. They flesh out his personality a good deal. He was a talented writer, a loving but absent father, a man of strong convictions (some naive), who never complained through his share of hardships. Constant financial difficulties and frequent talk of writing projects that never materialize may seem pitiful. But they are reminders of Hammett's nagging faults, the sort that every life has.
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the 2 most important books about Dashiell Hammett June 8 2009
By Vince Emery - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This is one of the two most important books about Dashiell Hammett. It provides hundreds of Hammett's letters, with excellent biographical commentary and extensive annotations by Hammett scholar Richard Layman and Hammett's granddaughter Julie Rivett. It also includes 51 photographs. The foreword by Hammett's daughter Jo is one of the best-written short pieces on the author.

This book was a groundbreaking work of Hammett scholarship, and changed many assumptions that biographers had made about his life and works. It was nominated for an Edgar Award as the Best Biographical Book of the Year. This book is the closest you can get to how Hammett thought and felt about his work, his life, and the people in it.

Layman and Rivett worked with Jo Hammett on the comments and annotations, which are for the most part scrupulously accurate. My extensive use of my copy of this book has left it worn and dog-eared, but I have found only 7 factual errors:

1) p. 21, the school name should be "Munson School for Secretaries."
2) p. 21, Hammett's first piece was published in October 1922, but it was not the first piece he wrote, and it was accepted for publication in June or July 1922; the obvious conclusion is that Hammett started writing in May or June 1922 or even earlier, not in October.
3) p. 28, "[November? 1925, San Francisco]" should be [September? 1925, San Francisco].
4) p. 32, "1509 Hyde" should be 1309 Hyde.
5) p. 34, Shaw became editor of The Black Mask in October 1926, not November.
6) p. 40, "Sunday [June 7, 1927? San Francisco]" is not accurate, because June 7, 1927 was a Tuesday.
7) p. 527, "Sidney Kingsley" should be "Mel Dinelli."
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book Dec 14 2013
By Dan Saltzstein - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Odd to read only one side of the conversations, but what a great book. Hammett was hilarious, as well as charming! Who knew?
4.0 out of 5 stars Great Book Jan. 20 2013
By kle1013 - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Normally I do not enjoy biographies or reading letters, however the book contained interesting information which added another facet to the literature and films of Hammett.
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