Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Damning review of Dashiell Hammett's life tangled in committee

Dashiell Hammett: Man of Mystery
A Biography by Sally Cline
Arcade Publishing, New York

Two facts are the focus of this book: Dashiell Hammett created the blueprint for noir crime writers; and Dashiell Hammett was a very strange and not very nice man.

Hammett, who created the strong, loner detective model in Sam Spade, was also the TB-stricken boy who grew into a physically and mentally flawed adult.

I learned a lot I did not know from reading Sally Cline’s book and I now have a more complete understanding of what drove Hammett to create his shadow world.

The book is packed full of facts and backed up by interpretation of how these affected the lives of Hammett and his lovers, particularly Lillian Hellman and his wife Jose, and those around them. Without a doubt, this is a, if not THE, definitive biography on Dashiell Hammett. 

However, there is a problem with the book and it becomes apparent at the outset with the Acknowledgements section running to 2250 words. While there is nothing wrong in itself with thanking everybody in person or by name, it did lead me to dwell on whether the depth of the consultation influenced the eventual outcome of the book. As such, it has a feel as though it has been written by committee.

Sally Cline has given a comprehensive account of Hammett’s struggles post-the Second World War and the anti-communist lawmakers in Washington.  Here again, Hellman comes off with a less-than-blemished record.  

The great thing about this book, however, is that reader will know more about the characters of Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman.  My reservation is that in this case, it may be that too many facts (and opinions) got in the way of a good story.

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