Samuel Dashiell Hammett is recognized as the first master of hard-boiled detective fiction. He is the author of five novels (Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, The Maltese Falcon, Glass Key, and The Thin Man), over 80 short stories, a comic strip, and edited numerous screenplays.
Hammett brought a realism to the detective genre with his tough, uncompromising characters and journalistic writing style. His take on the private detective was informed by his many years working for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Hammett's work is also marked by a dark, anarchic portrayal of the United States - a place where people are easily corrupted, where greed and violence are major driving forces.
Hammett started with the Pinkerton Agency at 21, where according to his long-time friend and lover, Lillian Hellman, he earned "the bad cuts on his legs and the indentations in his head from being scrappy with criminals". After working for years as an operative, Pinkerton sent him to Butte, Montana as a strike-breaker where he refused an offer of $5000 in exchange for the murder of Frank Little, an IWW union organizer. Little was later lynched, and although no one was ever charged, Pinkerton strike-breakers were believed to have killed him. After the murder Hammett left the Pinkerton agency and his political views became more radical.
Hammett's relationship with his home country was a complicated one. He contracted tuberculosis while serving in the first World War as a stateside ambulance man, and at the age of 48 served in the second World War. In the 1930s, Hammett joined the Communist Party and was a vocal opponent of Nazism. By 1948 he was the vice-chairman of the Civil Rights Congress, an organization considered subversive by the FBI. During the infamous McCarthy era, he was called upon to testify at the hearings of four individuals. He refused and at the age of 57 was sent to prison for six months. After completing his sentence, he was blacklisted (as was Hellman) and became a target for the IRS, who claimed that he owed huge amounts in tax deficiencies. The State Department also kept his books off the shelves of overseas American libraries.
Hammett suffered from extremely poor health after the first World War. He had tuberculosis, was an alcoholic, and on occasion suffered from venereal diseases. Lillian Hellman cared for him from 1956 until he died penniless of lung cancer in 1961.