Book title: Hammett: A Life on the Edge [+]
Author: William F. Nolan
Posted September 04, 2002
Nolan examines the life of Dashiell Hammett with a sharp focus on his writing and political life (which necessarily included his relationship with Lillian Helman). I generally dislike biographies because too much time is spent on the minutae of the subject's life -- that is not at all the case with this book. Nolan doesn't tell us much about Hammett's childhood, other than to describe his education. The book focuses on Hammett's writing and his adult life.
And what a life it was. Hammett's stories and novels were based on his own experiences as a Pinkerton Detective in the 1910s and 1920s. Nolan examines many of the cases Hammett worked on and drew out the linkages between his real life cases and his fiction (mostly his novels). I skipped a few of these sections when Nolan was examining a work I haven't read yet -- I didn't want to be spoiled. However, the sections I did read were fascinating. The chapter on the Maltese Falcon is particularly well done.
Hammet wrote his last novel in 1933 (The Thin Man) and his last short story a few years later. Although he tried very hard to write more, he never completed another novel or story. He did a lot of writing for Hollywood, but he never considered that "real" work -- it was a way to make money. The second half of the book focuses on this period, and was in many was the most interesting part of the book. Hammett became active in radical political causes, including the Communist Party, and he fell in love with Lillian Hellman, with whom he would share the rest of his life in an on again, off again fashion. Ultimately, Hammett was called before HUAC and refused to testify, subsequently going to jail.
My one complaint about this book was the end. The second-to-last page describes Hammett's tragic and heart-breaking death and the last page describes his funeral. It was something of a quick stop, with nothing to help the reader deal with Hammett's death or put it in some sort of perspective. I felt like there should have been at least one more chapter, perhaps examining Hammett's literary or political influence, or at least summarizing how his battle with alcoholism influenced his writing or something like that.
But all in all this is a fascinating, well written book. Oh, and this is in fact the same William F. Nolan who wrote Logan's Run.
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Mysteries & Thrillers
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In The Shadow of No Towers [+]*
The Girl Who Played Go [+]*
The Salt Roads [+]*
If Chins Could Kill [+]*
Secret Soldiers [+]*
Caveat Lector: This website documents my own reading adventure. I am the only reviewer and book selection is guided by my own tastes and interests. You may or may not agree with my opinions -- that's what makes the world an interesting place.