Dashiell Hammett and the Detective Story

May 27, 2019 by

Dashiell Hammett was born on May 27, 1894, making Memorial Day 2019 the 125th anniversary of his birth. Hammett was not the first pulp author to write hardboiled detective fiction, but he was the most influential. His was an original voice, steeped in cynicism bred by first-hand experience as a former Pinkerton Op. His stories and novels transcend their humble origins and are recognized as literature today. Hammett’s fiction and characters have left an indelible mark on popular culture nearly a century after he first appeared in the pages of SMART SET and BLACK MASK.

Friday night, August 16, at PulpFest 2019, critically acclaimed pop culture historian and 2006 Lamont Award recipient John Wooley of Reverse Karma Press presents “Dashiell Hammett and the Detective Story,” ably assisted with visual support from ADVENTURE HOUSE publisher and editor John Gunnison. Please join us for what is sure to be one of the highlights of this year’s convention.

While legendary Hammett characters such as The Continental Op, Sam Spade, Nick & Nora Charles, and Ned Beaumont started in the pulps (and slicks), they reached an even wider audience in film, radio, and television. Humphrey Bogart, the team of William Powell and Myrna Loy, and George Raft brought  Spade, Nick & Nora, and Ned Beaumont to the silver screen before being succeeded, respectively, by Howard Duff on radio, the team of Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk on television, and Alan Ladd in the silver screen remake of THE GLASS KEY. The nameless Continental Op was less faithfully transferred in ersatz adaptations for radio and a spin-off film version as Brad Runyon (rather than Casper Gutman) in THE FAT MAN, and 25 years later in a television mini-series with James Coburn as Hamilton Nash in THE DAIN CURSE. Less memorable variations of these properties preceded and followed these notable versions. Despite the undeniable charm of Nick and Nora on big and small screen and Bogart’s career-defining portrayal of Sam Spade in John Huston’s classic film version of THE MALTESE FALCON, no Hammett adaptation has remained entirely faithful to the written word or matched the depth and flawed moral complexities displayed by Hammett’s characters on the printed page.

The shining light of the BLACK MASK school of detective fiction left behind another legacy, albeit one that is less celebrated 85 years later. Alongside FLASH GORDON creator Alex Raymond, Hammett launched SECRET AGENT X-9 in 1934. The newspaper strip was enormously successful in its day spawning not one, but two Saturday matinee movie serials from Universal Pictures in the 1930s and 1940s. The newspaper strip continued for many decades, crossing over into comic books as well, and eventually becoming SECRET AGENT CORRIGAN. 

Hammett’s background as a Pinkerton man infused his detective stories with a realism few other writers could match. An unfaithful husband and an often absent father, he was a flawed man. His literary output teetered on the precipice as he debated deserting his wife and family. Like Sam Spade in the closing chapter of THE MALTESE FALCON, Hammett faced the consequences of his actions and, in the process, forever extinguished the spark of moral turpitude that lit his creative flames. Twenty years later, he teetered on the moral brink a second time when he struggled with what freedom really meant as an American citizen. His guilt over his violent past as a literal Union strikebreaker fueled his defense of workers’ rights late in life. He tried to make a better choice and was condemned in his own era for resolving to stick to his values once he recognized the wages of sin. A veteran of both World Wars, he served time in a state penitentiary for defending civil rights against the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was released from prison a broken man and died of the tuberculosis that had plagued him since the First World War.

Join John Wooley and John Gunnison at PulpFest 2019 for a celebration of the life and work of the single greatest writer of hardboiled detective fiction, the pulp writer who has achieved the greatest literary acclaim, and a man whose work is still justly celebrated for being as vital and influential today as it was when he typed his first story nearly a century ago.

PulpFest 2019 will begin on Thursday, August 15, and run through Sunday, August 18.  Join PulpFest at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Pittsburgh – Cranberry, just north of Pennsylvania’s “Steel City” of Pittsburgh in Mars, PA. We’ll be celebrating “Children of the Pulps and Other Stories” — focusing on the pulp influences in popular culture — at this year’s gathering.

Click our Programming button below our homepage banner to get a preview of all the great presentations at this year’s event.

To join PulpFest 2019, click the Register button below our homepage banner. To book a room at the DoubleTree by Hilton — our host hotel — click the Book a Room button, also found on our homepage.

(H. C. Murphy painted the initial cover for Dashiell Hammett’s five-part serial, “The Maltese Falcon.” It was originally published in the September 1929 through January 1930 issues of BLACK MASK. The story introduced the iconic private detective, Sam Spade.

THE ADVENTURES OF SAM SPADE was a radio series based loosely on Dashiell Hammett’s morally complex private eye, Sam Spade. The show ran for 13 episodes on ABC in 1946, for 157 episodes on CBS in 1946-1949, and finally for 51 episodes on NBC in 1949-1951. It starred Howard Duff as Sam Spade and Lurene Tuttle as his secretary Effie. The series was produced and directed by William Spier and sponsored by Wildroot Cream Oil Hair Tonic.)