Is it becoming modesty in a city, or just cluelessness, to cede to others the celebration of literary lions bred in that city’s midst?
Five years ago, for the 75th anniversary of publication of The Maltese Falcon, San Francisco did it up big with newspaper articles and library displays. Dashiell Hammett had set the action of his novel there. But Hammett (1894-1961), of Great Mills and Baltimore, Maryland, got scant attention in these parts. His best-known work hit another round number this year – a 1930 novel turns 80 – and once again, bashfulness reigns among Baltimorons. (That is what we call ourselves, but don’t you try.)
As it happens, the famous detective writer had been a detective in real life, and he learned to be a gumshoe here in Charm City. Baltimore shaped his art and his worldview.
Said the Continental Op: “Few men get killed. Most of those who meet sudden ends get themselves killed.” That would be Op, as in, “operative” working for the Continental Detective Agency. The paunchy but tough sleuth of Hammett’s early writings had no proper name. It was a hint that your really good private eye was anonymous, not flashy. Twenty-one-year-old Dashiell Hammett found this out when, as he later said, “an enigmatic want-ad took me into the employ of the Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency.” Starting salary: $21 a week.
The Continental Op was modeled on James Wright – a legend in Pinkerton’s Baltimore branch, and Hammett’s boss during 1915-17. The “Continental Detective Agency” was named for the building they worked out of. It’s still there, on the southeast corner of Baltimore and Calvert Streets: The Continental Trust Building. Allegedly the gilded birds adorning its front are what inspired the famed Maltese falcon. Inadequate ornithological knowledge prevents my confirming this.
Hammett had been born on a run-down tobacco farm in southern Maryland, in St. Mary’s County near Great Mills. His family was of old stock but had fallen on hard times. Remarkably, this classic American author didn’t even finish high school. After attending Baltimore’s Public School 72, he enrolled at the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute but had to quit at 14 to go to work. He hawked newspapers and toiled as a cannery worker, office gopher, and freight clerk for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.
Stubbornly he educated himself by scouring the shelves of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. And according to his biographer Joan Mellen, he absorbed radical ideas from the dock and cannery workers down at Baltimore’s harbor. In the First World War he served in the Army at Camp Meade (now Fort Meade) where he contracted the lung ailments that would plague him the rest of his life. His writing career began not long after, when the Sage of Baltimore himself, H.L. Mencken, published his articles in The Smart Set.
Those first efforts had that distinctive Hammett attitude: hard-bitten but always catching the humorous irony in things. In 1923 he wrote for Mencken a short piece about what he’d encountered as a detective – for example, the “operative who, while looking for pickpockets at the Havre de Grace race track, had his wallet stolen.”
For all his wit, this frail, hard-drinking, philandering, politically dissident writer was rather a haunted figure. Even after he made it big, selling his stories to radio and the movies, and hanging out in Hollywood and Manhattan, he was not at ease. And he didn’t respect what most people found “respectable.” In fact, of course, he was a secret member of the Communist Party – a Stalin admirer who embraced party discipline so tightly that he lashed out against comrades who complained when the Russian dictator signed the 1939 non-aggression pact with Hitler. Hammett did not, however, believe in putting Bolshevism directly into artistic works; that violated his sense of professionalism. Indeed, he rebuked his sometime lover, Lillian Hellman, for the agitprop in one of her dramas.
In 1942 he donned an Army uniform again to defend the United States and its new ally, the Soviet Union. The wartime Army didn’t want to take the 48-year-old because his teeth had gotten bad – so he had them all extracted. This time they stationed him not in Maryland but in Alaska.
Hammett, like Hellman, ran afoul of the counter-subversives of the 1950s. But unlike Hellman, Hammett paid a price for his beliefs, serving five months in prison for refusing to cooperate with the investigation of a Communist front organization he chaired. It’s no mean feat to come off as dignified when invoking the Fifth Amendment before a Senate committee. Hammett, however, was questioned by Roy Cohn himself and the writer’s sangfroid in the face of Cohn’s taunts – for example, drawing attention to Hammett’s meager output – is evident in the transcript alongside Hammett’s legal stonewalling. The flinty, controlled ex-Pinkerton man declined to play the victim.
He was sickly and had stopped writing, but he hadn’t stopped spending money in the high-class precincts of New York and Hollywood. When he died, debt-ridden, in 1961, he seems to have considered his life’s work a failure. Little did he know that it would enter the literary canon. And in death, he came back to our neck of the woods, to Virginia. Despite some official efforts to prevent it, he secured a military burial at Arlington National Cemetery. The stubborn Marylander got his way one last time.
Lauren Weiner has lived in Baltimore since 1992.