Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Happy birthday Dashiell Hammett...

It was a Wednesday afternoon, and the library was quiet. Too quiet. Of course, it was a library. I took the stairs to the third floor. I looked at the slip of paper in my hand. There was some kind of code on it: PS 3515.A4347.A671965. Yeah, this was the place all right. I hurried to the shelf and looked around to see if anybody was watching me, and then I saw it. A hardback, cover the color of money. The Novels of Dashiell Hammett. Yeah, they were all there in one thick volume: The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man... I knew this book was trouble.

Dashiell Hammett was born May 27, 1894. According to our database Literature Online, Hammett "created all the conventions" of the hard-boiled detective novel: an isolated, dogged private eye stuck in a job he hates but is too jaded to escape. He usually has a small office with his name on the door, a bottle of whiskey in the drawer of his dusty desk, a mordant wit and a turn for gallows humor, a pessimistic view of humanity and "a persistent affection for the city low-life." Often imitated (or parodied, as I did above) Hammett is considered the father of the American crime novel.

Hi own life was not without its dramatic elements. A former employee of the famous Pinkerton detective agency, Hammett was able to write from experience. His books were quickly turned into popular films, cementing his influence on American popular culture. Like his alcoholic private eyes, he fought his own battle with the bottle, becoming a teetotaler for good in 1949. He was a committed Communist, and in 1953 was called before Senator Joe McCarthy's Senate Committee on Government Operations. He refused to answer questions about various books by known Communists. His books were removed from libraries, and he was blacklisted by Hollywood. His assets were seized by the IRS for tax evasion, and in 1957 he listed his income as less than thirty dollars. He passed away in 1961, and as a veteran of two World Wars, was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

He is now regarded as one of the greatest and most innovative American crime novelists of all time, and "the first writer to approach pulp fiction as if it were as serious and complex as 'great literature.'" (source: Literature Online Reference Edition).

That green book is waiting for you on the third floor. I suggest you check it out.

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