US writer of detective novels that are the original and outstanding examples of the tough realistic type of crime fiction.
Hammett was born in Maryland and spent his youth in Baltimore and Philadelphia. After leaving school at fourteen, he eventually found work in the famous Pinkerton's Detective Agency, where he acquired the experience that distinguishes his novels: an unerring sense for authentic speech and character and a habit of acute observation. In World War I he served as a sergeant. Afterwards he continued to work for a time at Pinkerton's, married, and had two children. He eventually left his family, however, and started writing: in 1930 he met Lillian Hellman, who remained his friend for the rest of his life. Hammett's major novels were all published between 1929 and 1932. His fictional heroes are dedicated to seeing justice done in a society whose corruption is rendered with detachment and in convincing detail. Red Harvest (1929), The Dain Curse (1929), The Maltese Falcon (1930; filmed 1941 with Humphrey Bogart), and The Glass Key (1931; filmed 1935 and 1942) were followed by the comic The Thin Man (1932; filmed 1934).
Hammett became a celebrity in New York and Hollywood, where he wrote film scripts for a time, but his writing career was virtually finished by the time he was forty. He suffered from heavy drinking but managed to control it after 1948. A victim of the McCarthy witch-hunt of the 1950s, he spent six months in prison because of his political views; although he resolutely refused to answer questions regarding communist affiliations, it is likely that he was a party member. Certainly one cause of the writing block of the final decades of his life was his refusal to suppress deeply held political beliefs and adjust his writing to the bland conformity of the Eisenhower years. He tried to write an autobiographical novel but failed to complete it before his death. This unfinished work was printed in The Big Knockover and Other Stories (1966), edited by Hellman.