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The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett
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A 2016 Edgar Award Nominee



Before he became a household name in America as perhaps our greatest hard-boiled crime writer, before his attachment to Lillian Hellman and blacklisting during the McCarthy era, and his subsequent downward spiral, Dashiell Hammett led a life of action. Born in 1894 into a poor Maryland family, Hammett left school at fourteen and held several jobs before joining the Pinkerton National Detective Agency as an operative in 1915 and, with time off in 1918 to serve at the end of World War I, he remained with the agency until 1922, participating alike in the banal and dramatic action of an operative. The tuberculosis he contracted during the war forced him to leave the Pinkertons—but it may well have prompted one of America's most acclaimed writing careers.


While Hammett's life on center stage has been well-documented, the question of how he got there has not. That largely overlooked phase is the subject of Nathan Ward's enthralling The Lost Detective. Hammett's childhood, his life in San Francisco, and especially his experience as a detective deeply informed his writing and his characters, from the nameless Continental Op, hero of his stories and early novels, to Sam Spade and Nick Charles. The success of his many stories in the pulp magazine Black Mask following his departure from the Pinkertons led him to novels; he would write five between 1929 and 1934, two of them (The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man) now American classics. Though he inspired generations of writers, from Chandler to Connelly and all in between, after The Thin Man he never finished another book, a painful silence for his devoted readers; and his popular image has long been shaped by the remembrance of Hellman, who knew him after his literary reputation had been made. Based on original research across the country, The Lost Detective is the first book to illuminate Hammett's transformation from real detective to great American detective writer, throwing brilliant new light on one of America's most celebrated and remembered novelists and his world.
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Street Date:
09/15/2015
Language:
English
ISBN:
9781632862778
ASIN:
B013RXROF0
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APA Citation (style guide)

Nathan Ward. (2015). The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Chicago / Turabian - Author Date Citation (style guide)

Nathan Ward. 2015. The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Chicago / Turabian - Humanities Citation (style guide)

Nathan Ward, The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015.

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Nathan Ward. The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015. Web.

Note! Citation formats are based on standards as of July 2010. Citations contain only title, author, edition, publisher, and year published. Citations should be used as a guideline and should be double checked for accuracy.
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        Nathan Ward is the author of Dark Harbor: The War for the New York Waterfront. He was an editor at American Heritage, and he has written for the New York Times and other publications. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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shortDescription

Before he became a household name in America as perhaps our greatest hard-boiled crime writer, before his attachment to Lillian Hellman and blacklisting during the McCarthy era, and his subsequent downward spiral, Dashiell Hammett led a life of action. Born in 1894 into a poor Maryland family, Hammett left school at thirteen and held several jobs before joining the Pinkerton National Detective Agency as an operative in 1915 and, with time off in 1918 to serve at the end of World War I, he remained with the agency until 1922, participating alike in the banal and dramatic action of an operative. The tuberculosis he contracted during the war forced him to leave the Pinkertons—but it may well have prompted one of America's most acclaimed writing careers.

While Hammett's life on center stage has been well-documented, the question of how he got there has not. That largely overlooked phase is the subject of Nathan Ward's enthralling The Lost Detective.

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title
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fullDescription
A 2016 Edgar Award Nominee

Before he became a household name in America as perhaps our greatest hard-boiled crime writer, before his attachment to Lillian Hellman and blacklisting during the McCarthy era, and his subsequent downward spiral, Dashiell Hammett led a life of action. Born in 1894 into a poor Maryland family, Hammett left school at fourteen and held several jobs before joining the Pinkerton National Detective Agency as an operative in 1915 and, with time off in 1918 to serve at the end of World War I, he remained with the agency until 1922, participating alike in the banal and dramatic action of an operative. The tuberculosis he contracted during the war forced him to leave the Pinkertons—but it may well have prompted one of America's most acclaimed writing careers.

While Hammett's life on center stage has been well-documented, the question of how he got there has not. That largely overlooked phase is the subject of Nathan Ward's enthralling The Lost Detective. Hammett's childhood, his life in San Francisco, and especially his experience as a detective deeply informed his writing and his characters, from the nameless Continental Op, hero of his stories and early novels, to Sam Spade and Nick Charles. The success of his many stories in the pulp magazine Black Mask following his departure from the Pinkertons led him to novels; he would write five between 1929 and 1934, two of them (The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man) now American classics. Though he inspired generations of writers, from Chandler to Connelly and all in between, after The Thin Man he never finished another book, a painful silence for his devoted readers; and his popular image has long been shaped by the remembrance of Hellman, who knew him after his literary reputation had been made. Based on original research across the country, The Lost Detective is the first book to illuminate Hammett's transformation from real detective to great American detective writer, throwing brilliant new light on one of America's most celebrated and remembered novelists and his world.
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reviews
      • premium: False
      • source: The Wall Street Journal
      • content: Funny thing about books, some of them are a delight and a pleasure. Thus Nathan Ward's The Lost Detective—yes it's very well-written, yes the history is carefully done, but it has that glow. So, this you will like.
      • premium: False
      • source: Library Journal
      • content: The Lost Detective humanizes my grandfather, while at the same time illuminating the context of his life and times. Links between Hammett's fiction and Pinkertons and his early (pre-Hellman) family life are particularly satisfying.
      • premium: False
      • source: The Washington Post
      • content: As a devoted Hammett aficionado, I've read most books about him and published his daughter's memoir, but learned so much in this captivating examination of the great author's life that I feel compelled to reread his complete works with far deeper understanding than ever before.
      • premium: False
      • source: O, the Oprah Magazine
      • content: The Lost Detective is full of stimulating insight into how the novice writer shaped real-life experience into vital fiction.
      • premium: False
      • source: The Boston Globe
      • content: Ward's focus on the origins of Hammett's writing style and his connecting the events of the author's background to the fiction are the highlights of this brief, accessible biography . . . Highly recommended.
      • premium: False
      • source: Chicago Tribune
      • content: As brisk and conversational as a magazine feature, The Lost Detective invites readers not just to explore Hammett's early years in more detail and consider how those formative experiences helped shape his writing career, but also . . . to look at how the Hammett persona was created. And as we Hammett fans know, there are few personas, few writers in 20th-century literature period, more interesting to read about.
      • premium: False
      • source: Buffalo News
      • content: A gritty portrait of the 20th century's great pulp poet Dashiell Hammett, who turned his days gumshoeing for the Pinkerton Detective Agency into bawdy and muscular American classics.
      • premium: False
      • source: ShelfAwareness
      • content: [H]ighly entertaining . . . captures what it feels like to read Hammett's early work and, as Ward says, 'watch a sickly ex-detective in his late twenties, with an eighth-grade education, gradually, improbably, teach himself to write.'
      • premium: False
      • source: Herald Scotland
      • content: Nathan Ward shows that Hammett's innovative style did not, as it may have seemed, spring fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus . . . With deft investigative work, Ward shows how much of Hammett's fiction owed to Pinkerton reports . . . a lively, witty account of how Hammett came to be Hammett—a portrait of the artist, if you will, as a cynical man.
      • premium: False
      • source: The Virginian-Pilot
      • content: [A] splendid biography of this keystone figure of American letters. Fittingly, there have been numerous biographies of Hammett . . . but none have explored as deeply his life before he became a writer. There can be little doubt that Hammett's work with the Pinkertons was the greatest influence on who he became, both as a person and as an author . . . Ward wisely chose to focus on Hammett's formative years.
      • premium: False
      • source: Sydney Morning Herald
      • content: Nathan Ward's book shines a detective's flashlight on Hammett's early development.
      • premium: True
      • source: Publisher's Weekly
      • content:

        May 11, 2015
        The early life of Dashiell Hammett—from his background with the Pinkerton Detective Agency to his bout with tuberculosis while serving in the Army during WWI—fills this entertaining and informative biography by Ward (Dark Harbor). Growing up in Baltimore, Samuel Dashiell Hammett dropped out of high school to help support his family, but found few jobs appealing to him. A vaguely worded newspaper ad—Pinkerton’s preferred method of recruiting then—led to his main pre-writing employment, as well as fertile material for his later stories and novels. While many have written about Hammett’s life before, Ward dives deep into primary sources, including the Pinkerton Archives and Hammett’s VA hospitalization record. But it’s his choice to also wade into Hammett’s stories (including more obscure works, like the unfinished “Tulip”), using their autobiographical elements to flesh out details of the detective life, that help set this work apart. Examples range from The Maltese Falcon’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy, inspired by an old girlfriend of Hammett’s, to the Continental Op’s boss, the Old Man, likely based on legendary Pinkerton agent James McParland. Ward ends somewhat abruptly with Hammett’s early days in Hollywood, but given the vast volumes already written about Hammett’s life on the blacklist and with Lillian Hellman, the limits to this book’s scope hardly detract from the fascinating tale it tells. Agent: Ed Breslin, Ed Breslin Agency.

      • premium: True
      • source: Kirkus
      • content:

        May 15, 2015
        Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961), private eye. Journalist and former American Heritage editor Ward (Dark Harbor: The War for the New York Waterfront, 2011, etc.) began this lively, but ultimately slight, book with a single question: how did Hammett transform himself "from Pinkerton operative to master of the American detective story"? The many biographies of Hammett (Ward cites a few in his bibliography) failed to answer his question, so he set out on his own investigation. Unfortunately, finding little evidence of Hammett's years working for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, Ward often guesses what Hammett might have felt, done, or thought. Although he speculates, for example, that "doing his scores of operative reports" honed Hammett's ability to write pithy narratives, none of those reports are in the Pinkerton archive at the Library of Congress. Ward can only deduce what they might have contained from other operatives' work. Other information about the Pinkerton years came from Hammett researcher and journalist David Fechheimer, who tracked down operatives who had known Hammett. Ward also closely reads Hammett's detective stories for clues. Since none of his early writing has survived, however, even Hammett's motivation to become a writer is shrouded in mystery. What is clear was his inability to continue to work for Pinkerton because he was weak, and often bedridden, from tuberculosis contracted during World War I. With a wife and children to support, Fechheimer suggests, "he would have done whatever he had to do to make a buck." "Down the years," writes Ward, "Hammett must have wondered what might have happened had he gone on chasing crooks for the agency; whether, once he had run out his string as an operative, he could have settled into a desk job bossing younger detectives." Or maybe not. Ward ends the biography in 1935, when Hammett was famous, celebrated, and usually drunk. A jaunty narrative for Hammett and hard-boiled fans only.

        COPYRIGHT(2015) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

      • premium: True
      • source: Library Journal
      • content:

        June 15, 2015

        Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) began writing short fiction in 1922, and in a maniacally fertile period between 1929 and 1934 penned five hard-boiled novels, The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man among them, that would become standards in American crime fiction. Inspired by Hammett's experiences over nearly a decade as a detective, the stories exposed the raw nerve of America's growing criminal enterprise and whetted the reading public's appetite for crime novels, introducing such iconic characters as the Continental Op, Sam Spade, and Nick Charles, and devising an unfamiliar crime lexicon that would be imitated (but never surpassed) in following decades. Biographer Ward (Dark Harbor) asserts, "If anything taught Hammett to write pithily and with appreciation for the language of street characters it was...his scores of operative reports for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency." However, Hammett's life was far from the romantic ideal of a best-selling author. Tubercular and alcoholic, Hammett--alongside his longtime partner, the dramatist Lillian Hellman--struggled to reignite the spark of creativity that characterized his early career. A sixth novel would never come to fruition. VERDICT Ward's focus on the origins of Hammett's writing style and his connecting the events of the author's background to the fiction are the highlights of this brief, accessible biography. Endnotes and a selected bibliography are useful for researchers and those wishing to dig deeper into the historical and cultural contexts underpinning Hammett's achievements. Highly recommended for readers of literary biography, mystery, and crime fiction.--Patrick A. Smith, Bainbridge State Coll., GA

        Copyright 2015 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

      • premium: True
      • source: Booklist
      • content:

        June 1, 2015
        Ward, author of Dark Harbor: The War for the New York Waterfront (2010), has written a brief, buoyant Dashiell Hammett biography that focuses on how Hammett's brief career as a Pinkerton operative infused his crime writing and, especially, his characters Sam Spade and Nick Charles. Ward pored over the reports and memos written by Pinkerton operatives and housed in the Pinkerton archives in the Library of Congress; interviewed Hammett experts, including his daughter, who was able to tell Ward which of Hammett's hands bore a knife scar; researched Pinkerton Agency cases; and read the entire Hammett oeuvre for clues as to early Pinkerton influences. Although, as Ward acknowledges, no reports written by Hammett are in the archives, Ward uses the terse, Damon Runyonsounding reports to make a convincing argument for how this style translated into Hammett's prose. Hammett worked for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency (whose motto, We Never Sleep, was the basis for private eye ) before and briefly after WWI, until tuberculosis forced him into writing. This shines a light on Hammett's life and writings in an entirely new way.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2015, American Library Association.)

subtitle
Becoming Dashiell Hammett
popularity
43
publisher
Bloomsbury Publishing
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