Tag Archives: dashiell hammett

Forgotten Hammett: The Lost Interview

From 1929: a rare piece of early Dashiell Hammett. The real Hammett. Mostly in his own words. An account that until recently remained forgotten. Lost. Gone for keeps.

The year 1929 proved to be top drawer for Dashiell Hammett. His first, published novel, “Red Harvest,” hit the stands in February. “The Dain Curse” followed in July. Black Mask magazine, which originally serialized those Hammett books in 1927 and 1928, respectively, began the serial presentation of “The Maltese Falcon” in September. Hammett started work on “The Glass Key” that autumn.

In October of 1929, Hammett ventured to New York. During his visit, he gave an interview to Helen Herbert Foster of The Brooklyn Eagle Magazine, a weekly supplement to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The curiously titled piece is comprised mostly of Hammett quotes, heavy on the stuff of biography.

The diligent, journalistic sleuthing of Terry Zobeck discovered this little gem, and I ran across it thanks to Zobeck’s guest spot on Don Herron’s blog, “Up and Down These Mean Streets.”

I’m tickled to present the interview, transcribed from the original document scan.

–Ben Solomon


House Burglary Poor Trade
By Helen Herbert Foster

  • —Of all the men embezzling from their employers with whom I have had contact, I can’t remember a dozen who smoked, drank or had any of the vices in which bonding companies are so interested.
  • Nor have I have ever known a man capable of turning out first-class work in a trade, a profession or an art who was a professional criminal.
  • House burglary is probably the poorest trade in the world–I have never known any one to make a living at it.
  • Pocket picking is the easiest to master of all the criminal trades. Any one who is not crippled can become an adept at it in a day.
Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett

These are the opinions of Dashiell Hammett, formerly a Pinkerton man, and now a writer of detective stories, among which “Red Harvest” and “The Dain Curse” are well known. And though Mr. Hammett tells us about many people, there are few more interesting than himself. Until he began writing fiction he had no writing experience except that of writing letters and daily reports for headquarters.

It seems, according to Mr. Hammett, that to be a good detective, one must have a gift for poking one’s nose into other people’s business. Doubtless many of us know people–ourselves, of course, never!–who, we think, could qualify in this respect. But that’s only the beginning.

“For being a professional busybody requires more energy, more dogged patience than you’d suppose. I got so tired of it that I just had to give it up, though I have a flair for that kind of thing. There was never anything lacking in the matter of my curiosity. It’s not an easy business. A good detective is quite a person. He is a type that has always intrigued me. And for that reason I never subordinate his personality to the plot of my story.”

Naturally enough, the detective as a study would interest Mr. Hammett. And well it might. Some of the greatest writers of the past have studied the detective’s curious makeup. Victor Hugo in his immortal “Jean Valjean” tells us of a crack detective, Javeret by name, who either had to be that or a first class crook. The physical machinery, so to speak, of a good sleuth is a complicated thing and worthy of the pen of a competent writer.

“What I try to do is write a story about a detective rather than a detective story. Keeping the reader fooled until the last, possible moment is a good trick and I usually try to play it, but I can’t attach more than secondary importance to it. The puzzle isn’t so interesting to me as the behavior of the detective attacking it.”

And so Dashiell Hammett has given us a hard-boiled little “op,” a close-up of him at work. And an “op,” as every reader of detective stories should know–and who is not these days when presidents and prime ministers admit a weakness for them?–is a man who does in real life what the “master detective” does in fiction. He is, in short, an operative.

“The op I use,” says Hammett, “is the typical sort of private detective that exists in our country today. I’ve worked with half a dozen men who might be he with few changes. Though he may be different in fiction, he is almost pure ‘type’ in life. I’ve always tried to hold him as close to the ‘type” as possible because what I see in him is a little man going forward day after day through mud and blood and death and deceit–as callous and brutal and cynical as is necessary–towards a dim goal, with nothing to push him or pull him towards it except that he’s been hired to reach it–a sort of Manuel whose saying is: ‘The job’s got to be done.’ But please don’t think I suppose that I’ve been altogether successful in translating him to the printed page–I admit having moments when I think I’m having a little luck.”

When Mr. Hammett speaks you just have to watch your step. You have the feeling he’s setting traps for you to fall into. And maybe he is. He’s cynically funny, though one of the most genial people you’d want to meet.

“I knew a man who once stole a Ferris wheel,” he said. “And then there was the man I shadowed out into the country for a walk one Sunday afternoon who lost his bearings completely and I had to direct him back to the city. And I once knew a detective who attempted to disguise himself so thoroughly that the first policeman he met took him under arrest. And then there was the man I knew, and still know, who will forge the impressions of any set of fingers in the world for only fifty dollars–and then there was–

“This is what you wanted to hear, wasn’t it?” he said, smilingly interrupting himself. “All reporters want to hear such experiences from detectives. And these are authentic enough, goodness knows.”

“It couldn’t be so long ago,” we commented, trying to get in the spirit of his genial mood. “You don’t look very old.”

“No indeed. I’m not at all old. I’m quite young. I’m just 35 and what might be called of the ‘younger generation of writers.’ Surprising, isn’t it, how old the younger generation can be?

“So then I can proceed to the fact that I was brought up in Philadelphia–though I wouldn’t emphasize that too strongly–and in Baltimore. There isn’t much to be said for my education, for I had little of it. I left school at 14, in the middle of my first high school year.

“My first dive into bread-winning was a messenger boy for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, though I had tipped my toes in before that by selling newspapers after school. Later I drew wages as a junior clerk, very junior, in an advertising office. Then I went into a stockbroker’s office–but let me pause here. Things come to mind.

“I was often fired, I’ll admit that. But always most amiably. So much so that I was always on good terms with my ex-employers after. But about the stockbroker’s. There was a place. It seemed that I could seldom get the same approximate total twice in succession out of any column of figures, but still more seldom managed to get down early enough in the day to make any of my mistakes before noon. And they had a weird notion that one should be there all day. Well, of course, when such a situation arises something is bound to happen. It did.

“Maybe I should have gone in for journalism. But let me get on with this story of my life and get the agony over with. After the stockbroker’s I became a timekeeper in a cannery and in a machine shop and from that the way was easy to that of a stevedore. I made the grade but then it became too strenuous.

“Now I approach, chronologically, when I became a detective. I was attached to a national agency as an operative, before and after the war, in the East, Northwest, and on the Pacific Coast. I was a pretty good sleuth, but a bit overrated because of the plausibility with which I could explain away my failures proving them inevitable and no fault of mine.

“You’ll want to hear of my war record, no doubt. Frankly, it was dull. I contributed practically nothing to the Allied victory. I came out of my uniform with tuberculosis, which later sent me to a couple of hospitals for seven or eight months.

“When the Tijuana racing season closed in the spring of 1921, I left the last of these hospitals–just outside of San Diego–and brought my still frayed lungs to San Francisco, where I returned to sleuthing. But that didn’t last long. My health continued to go blooey and I was getting tired of butting into other people’s business. That’s where you never can tell about the neighborhood busybody’s ability to be a professional; it takes perseverance. I lacked the drive to keep it going at par.

“Well, by this time I had a wife and daughter, and they were to be somewhat housed, clothed and fed.

“I decided to become a writer.

“It was a good idea. Having had no experience whatever in writing, except writing letters and reports, I wasn’t handicapped by exaggerated notions of the difficulties ahead. By the end of the year writing was supporting us in so far as we were being supported at all.”

This, then, was Dashiell Hammett’s story of how he began writing, and it is a story, you will admit, that one doesn’t hear every day. After he began wielding his pen he stuck right to it except for a few excursions into advertising, “to pick up a few dollars.”

“There’s another weakness I possess that I haven’t confessed: I’m an artist, or nearly. That is, I have a tendency to fritter away time over a drawing board trying to make black marks come out beautiful on white paper, which they seldom, if ever, do.”

In the fall of 1927 a lot of doctors–yes, a lot of ’em, he said, and one professor–told him his lungs were all right. To date he sees no reason for doubting they knew what they were talking about.

“Detecting has its high spots,” said he in a somewhat more serious vein, “but the run of the work is the most monotonous that any one could imagine. The very things that can be made to sound the most exciting in the telling are in the doing usually the most dully tiresome.

“Up to the time I became a sleuth, I liked gumshoeing–did I forget to give you the details of that experience?–better than anything I had done before. But at that I wasn’t such a rotten sleuth. Thanks to my ability to write pleasing and convincing reports, my reputation was always a little more than I deserved. A couple times I was offered official jobs but dodged them since by then I was about fed up.

“I wish we had lots of time for I’m just remembering other things that might interest you. I’d like to tell you of the chief of police of a southern city who once gave me a minute description of a man down to the mole on his neck, but neglected to mention that he had only one arm. Then there was the forger who left his wife because she had learned to smoke cigarettes while he was serving a term in prison. Sleuthing has its funny side though it’s trying work. A good detective has to be brave, vigorous, damnably clever, tireless–altogether a real person. He is an extraordinarily complicated mechanism.”

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The Raymond Chandler Interview

The city where I work and live is rich in tradition. Politics, in many ways its own hog butcher to the world, overlaps most of this heritage. If there’s one thing we’re good at, and we’ve been doing it a long time, that’s getting out the vote. Preston Sturges celebrated this in his original screenplay, “The Great McGinty:”

Some people is too lazy to vote, that’s all. They don’t like this kind of weather. Some of them is sick in bed and can’t vote. Maybe a couple of them croaked recently. That’s ain’t no reason why Mayor Tillinghast should get cheated out of their support.

It’s in this spirit of overcoming trivialities that I present the following interview with Raymond Chandler. Just because he hasn’t penned a word since the 1950’s is no reason he should dummy up now.

In case you don’t know it, Chandler’s the bird what wrote “The Big Sleep,” “Farewell My Lovely” and “The Long Goodbye,” among others. By all accounts, Chandler and Dashiell Hammett make up the one-two punch that matured pulp, detective fiction. They gave it class with a capital K, and their polish and sophistication turned the hard-boiled genre into the stuff of literature. I hear some of their work is even assigned in high schools and universities across the nation. Not too shabby for a couple authors whose early works wore a Black Mask.

Raymond Thornton Chandler was born in Chicago in 1888, and it’s about time he retuned for a visit. In world-class and world-weary style, no one paid us no never mind as we swapped questions and answers during a walking tour of the Near North Side.

SOLOMON: Mr. Chandler, I thank you for granting this interview. I’m sure readers everywhere are plenty grateful, not to mention awful surprised.

CHANDLER: Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.

SOLOMON: I understand you didn’t go for it at first. I mean the first time my editor called you.

CHANDLER: I hung up. It was a step in the right direction, but it didn’t go far enough. I ought to have locked the door and hid under the desk.

SOLOMON: You two didn’t get along.

CHANDLER: He was a guy who talked with commas, like a heavy novel. Over the phone anyway.

SOLOMON: What did you tell him?

CHANDLER: You talk too damn much and too damn much of it is about you.

SOLOMON: He tends to do that.

CHANDLER: He sounded like a man who had slept well and didn’t owe too much money.

SOLOMON: Well I’m awful glad you eventually came around.

CHANDLER: Sooner or later I may figure out why you like being a kept poodle.

SOLOMON: I’d sure never admit to anything like that being true. And even if it was, I sure as hell wouldn’t like it.

CHANDLER: You know Chandler. Always griping about something.

SOLOMON: You are the first in the decadence of your art.

CHANDLER: The more you reason the less you create.

SOLOMON: It’s easy to stiffen up while sitting at the keys. That’s for sure.

CHANDLER: The faster I write the better my output. If I’m going slow, I’m in trouble. It means I’m pushing the words instead of being pulled by them.

SOLOMON: So how do you accomplish that? How do you pull it off?

CHANDLER: Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.

SOLOMON: Isn’t that a little easier said than done? Don’t you run up against obstacles? Don’t you even create your own obstacles?

CHANDLER: Everything a writer learns about the art or craft of fiction takes just a little away from his need or desire to write at all. In the end he knows all the tricks and has nothing to say.

SOLOMON: I know what you’re getting at. But when you say it out loud it sounds kind of astounding. Almost appalling.

CHANDLER: There is something about the literary life that repels me, all this desperate building of castles on cobwebs, the long-drawn acrimonious struggle to make something important which we all know will be gone forever in a few years, the miasma of failure which is to me almost as offensive as the cheap gaudiness of popular success.

SOLOMON: Yet your work is still celebrated. “The Big Sleep,” f’rinstance, is held in the highest regard. That book goes back to 1939, for crissake.

CHANDLER: There are no “classics” of crime and detection. Not one. Within its frame of reference, which is the only way it should be judged, a classic is a piece of writing which exhausts the possibilities of its form and can never be surpassed.

SOLOMON: So you’re saying you never achieved that. Hammett, neither? Not anybody since?

CHANDLER: No story or novel of mystery has done that yet. Few have come close. Which is one of the principal reasons why otherwise reasonable people continue to assault the citadel.

SOLOMON: The public always loved the form, anyway. And still does.

CHANDLER: An age which is incapable of poetry is incapable of any kind of literature except the cleverness of a decadence.

SOLOMON: I take it you don’t go in for a lot of the contemporary, detective fiction.

CHANDLER: The flood of print has turned reading into a process of gulping rather than savoring.

SOLOMON: Is there such a thing as being too critical? Perhaps a touch too severe?

CHANDLER: A classical education saves you from being fooled by pretentiousness, which is what most current fiction is too full of.

SOLOMON: So who do you recommend?

CHANDLER: Hammett was the ace performer.

SOLOMON: You can’t go wrong with Dashiell.

CHANDLER: He is said to have lacked heart; yet the story he himself thought the most of—

SOLOMON: “The Glass Key.”

CHANDLER: —is the record of a man’s devotion to a friend. He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.

SOLOMON: That’s one heck of a compliment.

CHANDLER: The challenge is to write about real things magically.

SOLOMON: Who sounds pretentious, now?

CHANDLER: Without magic, there is no art. Without art, there is no idealism. Without idealism, there is no integrity. Without integrity, there is nothing but production.

SOLOMON: So how do you keep your integrity intact? It’s a tough haul, word by word, line by line, page by page—

CHANDLER: Don’t ever write anything you don’t like yourself and if you do like it, don’t take anyone’s advice about changing it. They just don’t know.

SOLOMON: Fair enough. Sure.

CHANDLER: I am a writer, and there comes a time when that which I write has to belong to me, has to be written alone and in silence, with no one looking over my shoulder, no one telling me a better way to write it.

SOLOMON: You are your first and last audience, if I get you right.

CHANDLER: It doesn’t have to be great writing, it doesn’t even have to be terribly good. It just has to be mine.

SOLOMON: It always sounds too damn easy when you talk it through. So easy to say it’s all about the writing.

CHANDLER: The actual writing is what you live for. The rest is something you have to get through in order to arrive at the point.”

SOLOMON: But it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

CHANDLER: Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality: there are no dull subjects, only dull minds.

SOLOMON: If I’ve got it right, you kinda write as you will, artistically speaking, I mean. The notion of creating art isn’t part of what you consciously do.

CHANDLER: There are no vital and significant forms of art; there is only art, and precious little of that.

SOLOMON: Ain’t that the truth?

CHANDLER: There is no bad whiskey. There are only some whiskeys that aren’t as good as others.

SOLOMON: Now I believe you’re quoting yourself…I wanted to take you for a bite, to one of those venerable establishments you might remember. But you know things can never be the same. The Blackhawk, Barney’s Market Club—both gone. Even the Berghoff ain’t what it used to be. Sure.

CHANDLER: I used to like this town. A long time ago…

SOLOMON: Maybe I should just rustle us up a couple of dames.

CHANDLER: I do a great deal of research—particularly in the apartments of tall blondes.

SOLOMON: Then maybe I should just leave you to it and say goodbye.

CHANDLER: To say goodbye is to die a little.


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