The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett
by Nathan Ward
Bloomsbury, 2015; 240 pp
Reviewed by Charlie Riccardelli
Famed crime writer Dashiell Hammett published for only a short span of his life, but his contributions to the genre can be seen in the works of the many authors who followed him. As biographer Nathan Ward establishes in his book The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett, readers had different expectations for the crime genre before Hammett made his mark. In earlier examples, most notably Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, the narratives were driven by clues pieced together by brilliant sleuths. The very idea was derided by William A. Pinkerton, son of the founder of Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency and then the most famous detective in the world. Pinker once told a journalist, “These stories about detectives tracing crimes by scratches on the back of watches and all that sort of rot give people the wrong idea about the way we work. Detective work is only using good common sense–and nothing else. Any man with good common sense can be a detective. I’ve picked some of my men from street cars and all sorts of occupations, and they have usually made good.”
Dashiell Hammett was one such man. As Ward explains, the style, stories, and ideas that most influenced Hammett’s work were born out of his days as a Pinkerton where he solved crimes throughout the country and even worked as a strike-breaker, a surprising role for such a prominent left-wing figure. Ward volleys between Hammett’s story as a fledgling detective while giving a history of the agency to root the reader into the world. He also allows the reader into the Hammett’s private life, including his service during World War I, his marriage and his many affairs. While we learn of several cases that the author worked in his life, the reader rarely learns about much in detail. This lack of specifics ends up hurting The Lost Detective as the book continues, resulting in an unusually lightweight biography for such a fascinating figure.
While The Lost Detective is rich with potential material, it’s disappointing to report how scattershot the book is. Minus notes and the appendix, the book runs less than 200 pages but feels aimless. The author drifts too often between anecdotes and feels lost in time, dragging the momentum of The Lost Detective when, given the richness of the material, it should build to something more compelling. After reading the book, it’s stranger for the reviewer to think that he remembers more details from an anecdote about Hammett’s granddaughter taking a San Francisco-based tour on her grandfather than anything about Hammett’s detective career. The book also never paints a full portrait of Hammett’s personality even as it hits the key moments of his early life (the book only covers the first half of his life). While I understand the author’s framing device in relation to Hammett’s work, the lack of detail makes it more frustrating to know that the book ends before Hammett’s more politically active years while involved with Lillian Hellman. Perhaps the details don’t exist to flesh out Hammett’s colorful early life, but the lack of it makes The Lost Detective a frustrating read.