I’ve been following the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse trial in New York and I was interested particularly in the testimony of a private investigator named Sam Anson.
Sam Anson was called to the stand last month by the state to testify about Harvey Weinstein’s offer to hire the private detective to investigate people the Hollywood producer believed were contacting journalists and talking about his sexual activities with women. Sam Anson did not take the case.
The testimony of this modern-day private investigator made me think of two other private detectives named Sam. One was Samuel Dashiell Hammett, a former Pinkerton detective, and the other was Hammett’s popular literary creation, private eye Sam Spade.
As a crime aficionado since my early teens, I’ve read and re-read the crime stories of Dashiell Hammett over the years. One of the first books in my now-extensive library was a collection of his classic crime novels, which included “Red Harvest,” “The Dain Curse,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Glass Key” and “The Thin Man.”
The first character in his short stories was a nameless detective known only as the “Continental Op.” His first two novels, “Red Harvest” and “The Dain Curse,” both published in 1929, featured the Continental Op as the narrator.
Although the Continental Op stories were written in the first person, the short and fat veteran detective was clearly not based on the author. Some have said that the Continental Op was based on James Wright, an old-time detective and Hammett’s boss at the Pinkerton’s Baltimore office.
The author said Sam Spade, described as a “blonde Satan” in his 1930 novel “The Maltese Falcon,” was also not based on himself, but Diane Johnson, the author of “Dashiell Hammett: A Life,” noted that Hammett gave Spade his first name, a close physical description, and he subtly identified with him.
When asked where his characters in “The Maltese Falcon” came from, Diane Johnson wrote that Hammett replied, “I followed Gutman’s original in Washington, and I never remember shadowing a man who bored me so much. He was not after a jeweled falcon, of course; but he was suspected of being a German spy … I worked with Dundy’s prototype in a North Carolina railroad yard. The Cairo character I picked up on a forgery charge in 1920. Effie, the good girl, once asked me to go into the narcotic smuggling business with her in San Diego.
“Wilmer, the gunman, was picked up in Stockton, California, a neat, small smooth-faced quiet boy of perhaps twenty-one. He was serenely proud of the name the papers gave him — The Midget Bandit. He’d robbed a Stockton filling station the previous week — and had been annoyed by the description the station proprietor had given of him and by the proprietor’s statement of what he would do to the little runt if he ever laid eyes on him again and see what he wanted to do about it. That’s when we nabbed him.”
Brigid, he added, was partly based on a woman who hired him to fire her housekeeper.
Hammett’s stories have the feel of realism and authenticity as he used his experiences as a Pinkerton detective to pepper his fictional stories with true crimes, nicknames, slang, dramatic situations and characters based on people he met when he was a Pinkerton.
As Nathan Ward tells us in his book, “The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett,” Dashiell Hammett was born in 1894 in St. Mary’s County in Maryland and his family moved to Baltimore when he was 5 years old. He left school at 14 and worked at several jobs until he was 21 and then became an operative for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in 1915. He left Pinkerton’s in 1918 and joined the Army as World War I raged. While in the Army, he became ill with tuberculosis. Discharged from the Army, he returned to Pinkerton and worked as a detective until 1922.
Still suffering from tuberculosis, he began to write crime fiction for Black Mask magazine and later found fame with his popular novels and the successful films made from his novels, such as John Huston’s classic 1941 remake of “The Maltese Falcon.”
Hammett died in January 1961. He was 66.
Nathan Ward notes that Hammett’s tuberculosis forced him to give up being a detective, but it may well have prompted him to become a literary legend.
“The contemporary novelist’s job is to take pieces of life and arrange them on paper,” Hammett said. “And the more direct their passage from street to paper, the more lifelike they should be.”
• Paul Davis’ On Crime column covers true crime, crime fiction, mysteries and thrillers.