Collecting Mystery & Detective Fiction

by Pamela Palmer

#29, 14 October 2004

A Collector's View of Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett did fairly well as a Pinkerton detective. Employment with the agency was a significant improvement over his previous stints as a stevedore, freight clerk, and railroad worker. Truth is, though, his career didn't take off until he quit living in the gritty, uncompromising world of cynical operatives and started writing about it.

By the time he turned to fiction, few options remained. Tubercular with plenty of vices, no money, and a family to support, Hammett turned to the pulps and their penny-a-word payment. First he wrote for Smart Set, starting in October 1922. By the end of that year, his first work for Black Mask, "The Road Home," was published under the pseudonym Peter Collinson. Soon he was writing longer works serialized in the magazine.

Called the father of the hard-boiled mystery, Hammett shaped the genre. He dominated it from the 1920s through 1934 when his final novel, The Thin Man, was published. Between those years, his longer works in Black Mask appeared in book form; the first was the Knopf publication of Red Harvest in 1929. Marking a major shift in mystery fiction, Hammett replaced the traditional well-bred sleuth with the likes of Sam Spade. As William F. Nolan puts it in Firsts, "He took murder out of the rose garden and dumped it into the back alley." (Nov. 2000, p. 40).

Hammett worked as a highly paid screenwriter until 1939. He enjoyed drinking, gambling, and women far more than the writing, and during that time he began a long-term relationship with writer Lillian Hellman. Radical politics replaced writing as his main interest until he joined the army during World War II at the age of 48.

After the war, Hammett became best known as a left-wing activist, running afoul of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He was blacklisted and served five and a half months in federal prison for contempt of court.

Though he quit publishing new novels in 1934, his writing continued to generate income. Released from jail in 1951, he quickly ran into financial difficulties. He was still on the blacklist and an IRS settlement for over $150,000 effectively eliminated earnings from earlier writing. A small veteran's pension was his sole income until his death in 1961.

By & About

Hammett's mystery writings span the literary spectrum of his time, ranging stories in pulp magazines to novels and screenplays. There is substantial crossover among the formats. For example, Red Harvest was serialized in Black Mask in 1927, two years before it appeared in novel form.

Major Books -

Red Harvest. New York & London: Knopf, 1929.

The Dain Curse. New York: Knopf, 1929; London: Knopf, 1930.

The Maltese Falcon. New York & London: Knopf, 1930.

The Glass Key. London & New York: Knopf, 1931.

The Thin Man. New York: Knopf, 1934; London: Barker, 1934.

Secret Agent X-9, books 1 and 2. Philadelphia: McKay, 1934.

$106,000 Blood Money. New York: Spivak, 1943.

The Battle of the Aleutians, by Hammett and Robert Colodny. Adak, Alaska: U.S. Army Intelligence Section, Field Force Headquarters, Adak, 1944.

The Adventures of Sam Spade. New York: Spivak, 1944. Republished as They Can Only Hang You Once. New York: The American Mercury /Spivak, 1949.

The Continental Op. New York: Spivak, 1945.

The Return of the Continental Op. New York: Spivak, 1945.

Hammett Homicides. New York: Spivak, 1946.

Dead Yellow Women. New York: Spivak, 1947.

Nightmare Town. New York: The American Mercury/Spivak, 1948.

The Creeping Siamese. New York: Spivak, 1950.

Woman in the Dark. New York: Spivak, 1951.

A Man Named Thin. New York: Ferman, 1962.

The Big Knockover. New York: Random House, 1966. Republished as The Dashiell Hammett Story Omnibus. London: Cassell, 1966.

The Continental Op. New York: Random House, 1974.

Woman in the Dark. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Nightmare Town. New York: Knopf, 1999.

The two most noted bibliographies are Richard Layman's Dashiell Hammett: A Descriptive Bibliography (Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh Press, 1979) and E.H. Mundell's A List of the Original Appearances of Dashiell Hammett's Magazine Work (Kent State UP, 1968). Other useful titles are William F. Nolan's Dashiell Hammett: A Casebook (Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh Press, 1969) and Gary Lovisi's Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler: A Checklist and Bibliography of Their Paperback Appearances (Brooklyn: Gryphon, 1994).

For those interested in details, see "The Glass Key and Other Dashiell Hammett Mysteries," by Mark Sutcliffe (Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1996, pp. 254-57). In this article, Sutcliffe clarifies several intriguing questions. He traces details of the three states of the Red Harvest dust jacket, including a highly elusive one. He writes, "There is, however, at least one extant example of this great rarity, and it owes its survival to a piece of legislation passed shortly before World War I" (p. 255).

Biographies include Richard Layman's Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981), William F. Nolan's Hammett: A Life at the Edge (Congdon & Weed, 1983), and Diane Johnson's Dashiell Hammett: A Life, an authorized biography. His papers are housed at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

Prices & Venues

The Maltese Falcon regularly tops the list for highest prices. In R.B.Russell's Guide to First Edition Prices: 2004/5 (Tartarus Press, 2004), he values "The Maltese Falcon, Knopf (U.S.), 1930 (first issue d/w without reviews for Maltese Falcon)" at 25,000 with dust jacket and 1,500 without. Russell names Red Harvest [Knopf (U.S.), 1929] and The Dain Curse [Knopf (U.S.), 1929] as next highest with both at 12,500 with dust jacket. Short story collections and other writings are valued substantially lower.

The most lucrative venues for selling top quality Hammett titles are the traditional auction houses. For example, American Book Prices Current 2002 and American Book Prices Current 2003 show the high-end values of The Maltese Falcon, traditionally the most valuable of Hammett first editions. Top price went for a copy sold by Swan Galleries for $30,000. It is described as "The Maltese Falcon. 1st Ed in Book form. NY, 1930. In dj with tears to spine & 1 into front panel; bumped... $30,000." (American Book Prices Current 2002, p. 555)

Other copies of The Maltese Falcon from 1930 sold for $800, $7,500, and $4,800. The 1st Pocket Books 1944 copy went for $50 and a copy of the 1983 Arion Press edition sold for $600. Part of the Black Mask serialization from the Lackritz collection was sold by Christie's. It is described as "The Maltese Falcon. NY, 1929. Parts 1-3 (of 5). Orig pictorial wraps; chipped. In: Black Mask, Sept-Nov 1929. Lackritz copy ... $1,600." (American Book Prices Current 2003)

Selling prices on eBay are comparatively low. Between August 16 and October 10, 2004, the highest price for a Hammett book was 75 (app. $135) for an auction headed "Dashiell Hammett -The Glass Key." It sold with one bid. Next highest was "THE MALTESE FALCON VINTAGE PB w DJ DASHIELL HAMMETT 268" that sold for $81 with 14 bids on Oct. 7. During the same period three books were listed at $1499 or $1500; all closed with no bids. Among them were "Dashiell Hammett/GLASS KEY/in (4) 1930 BLACK MASK PULPS" and "Dashiell Hammett. The Maltese Falcon. FIRST PRINTING HC."

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Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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