cover image Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett

Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett. Counterpoint LLC, $40 (356pp) ISBN 978-1-58243-081-2

Biographer Layman (Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett) and Rivett, Hammett's granddaughter, offer a deeply involving anthology of the voluminous correspondence of Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961), culled from more than 1,000 surviving letters. The result (aided immensely by detailed annotation and crisp biographical sketches) narrates Hammett's literary success and the conflicted, enigmatic life he led following publication of The Thin Man (1934), his final novel. The letters illuminate the amazing texture of Hammett's life (from his well-paid Hollywood years to the joyful patriotism of his WWII service to his searing decline due to Red baiting) and writing (from prolific pulp contributor to innovator of popular, violent novels like Red Harvest). They also limn his unusual and intense personal relationships, particularly with the women in his life his estranged wife, longtime lover Lillian Hellman and his daughters and the warmth and chivalry concealed within an oblique persona. While Hammett was not given to detailed meditation on his fictive innovations, his astute reportage of his era's literary gossip, his street-level life and his moral complexities (which, touchingly, he discussed via correspondence with his young daughter Josephine, who writes the introduction) make up for this deficit. Although this collection is richly satisfying, reading it is a bittersweet, saddening experience. One senses that Hammett was knocked about in his lifetime and undervalued, both as a writer and for his dogged pursuit of social justice. Layman and company offer an important touchstone of literary history and a book that will remain a solid backlist title for mystery devotees. Illus. not seen by PW. (May 1)