Bill DeMain: How Dashiell Hammett Invented The Modern Detective Novel

tags: Bill DeMain, Pursuit Magazine, Dashiell Hammett, pop culture, novels



The mysterious femme fatale. The tough private eye who seeks justice at any cost. The rare object worth killing for. Dashiell Hammett coined all of these classic elements of noir fiction with his 1930 breakthrough novel The Maltese Falcon. But how did Hammett dream up this dark, new world of literature? By writing from experience.

In the 1920s, American fiction desperately needed its own private detective. It was overrun with Sherlock Holmes imitators–erudite puzzle solvers who refused to get their hands dirty. Enter Dashiell Hammett, a former private investigator turned writer. In The Maltese Falcon, Hammett took the detective out of the drawing room, dumped him in a dark alley and created an American classic in the process.

Lauded upon publication for its lean prose and how it captured the sex and violence of urban America, The Maltese Falcon has soared to greater critical heights with each passing decade. Hammett’s descendant Raymond Chandler praised the book for “scenes that seemed never to have been written before.” And Ross McDonald called it “the greatest mystery novel ever.”

Why did The Maltese Falcon seem so raw and genuine compared to other mystery novels of the time? Because Dashiell Hammett really was a detective. Born in 1894, Hammett quit school at age 14 to help earn money for his family. After a string of low-paying jobs, he became an operative with San Francisco’s Pinkerton Detective Agency. There he adopted the code that deeply influenced his life: Create a barrier between yourself and the rest of the world....



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