The Baltimore Literary Heritage Project

Dashiell Hammett
Dashiell Hammett pic
Dashiell Hammett, article title

Except for a perilous moment at North Avenue, when the interfering cross-stream of traffic threatened to separate him from his quarry, Alec Rush followed the limousine without difficulty. In front of a Howard Street theatre, it discharged its freight: a youngish man and a young woman, both tall, evening-clad, and assuringly in agreement with the descriptions the detective had got from his client.
from "The Assistant Murderer"

Best known as the author of The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man, and other books, short stories, plays, and movies featuring tough detectives in the 1920s and 30s, Dashiell Hammett was one of the foremost creators of the "hard-boiled" detective fiction genre. Generations of readers have enjoyed the hard-biting escapades of Sam Spade, Ned Beaumont, and the Continental Op, as well as the high society adventures of Nick and Nora Charles and their dog, Asta.

Hammett cut his writing teeth in Baltimore. Many of his books and short stories rely on his extensive experience on the streets of Baltimore and his years in the Pinkerton Detective Agency. He drew many of his fictional characters from these experiences and occasionally used the city itself as a setting (The Glass Key and "The Assistant Murderer," for example).

Born in rural, southern Maryland, Hammett moved to Baltimore with his family when he was six. Although his formal education ended at the age of 14 when he had to go to work to support his ailing father and the family, Hammett remained an avid reader all his life. Besides the material he gained from the streets, bars, and brothels of Baltimore, he most likely read The Baltimore Sun and haunted the public library, probably the Mencken Branch on Hollins Street.

His first job was running the family business: local blacks selling fish from horse-drawn carts, a long-standing Baltimore tradition. (These peddlers, called "Ay-rabbers," can still be found on the streets of Baltimore selling fruits, vegetables and flowers from their horse-drawn carts.) When that business failed, Hammett turned to various jobs with railroads, brokerage houses, machine manufacturers, and canneries; he worked as a messenger, newsboy, freight clerk, stevedore, and advertising manager. In 1915, he joined Pinkerton's Detective Agency as an operative. His base was the Continental Trust Building, from which Hammett later derived the name of his fictional detective protagonist, the Continental Op, who appeared in numerous short stories in Black Mask magazine, which H.L. Mencken had co-founded in 1920. Some think that the ornamental black birds over the door of that building inspired Hammett's Maltese falcon. During his time with the Agency, he was stabbed at least once and sustained a permanent dent in his skull from a brick when he bungled a tailing job.

The very opinionated Dashiell Hammett loved Dostoyevsky, enjoyed Dickens' characters but thought Dickens didn't know what to do with them, didn't think Hemingway could write love scenes, enjoyed The New Yorker, but sneered at Time and Life magazines, felt that Tallulah Bankhead was ruined when she fell in love with her own voice, and feared flying. In addition to his writing, he was also known for his drinking and womanizing.

Dashiell Hammett is buried in Arlington National Cemetery near the tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Places of Interest:

References to Baltimore that appear in Hammett's work include: Harlem Park, Edmondson Avenue, Gay Street, Mount Royal Avenue, North Avenue, and Howard Street