Dashiell Hammett’s Pinkerton Past

Dashiell Hammett’s status as one of the most beloved detective writers of the twentieth century partly stems from the authenticity readers see in his works. As an operative for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency from 1915 to 1922, Hammett gained first-hand insight into the handling of a case, the mindset of a detective, and the seedy underground world of American crime and corruption. Through the readings we covered in class, I became fascinated by the effect of his history on his writing, an interest clearly shared by many of Hammett’s readers. In my exhibit, “Dashiell Hammett’s Pinkerton Past,” I provide an overview of some of the connections between Hammett’s writing and his time in the investigation game — this will hopefully help readers gain new and unique perspectives on the narratives Hammett produced.

Cover. Hammett, Dashiell. The Continental Op. (New York: Lawrence E. Spivak Publishers, 1945) From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photo by Laura Ewen
Cover. Hammett, Dashiell. The Continental Op. (New York: Lawrence E. Spivak Publishers, 1945). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photo by Laura Ewen.

Readers and scholars have identified various characters and plot points that Hammett drew directly from his own experience as a private eye. These specific details from Hammett’s personal past helped me develop an interest in the ways in which his career shaped his art. For example, his most frequently recurring character, the Continental Op, was actually based on a fellow detective. This stout, no-nonsense private investigator was supposedly modeled on James Wright, the assistant manager of Pinkerton’s Baltimore branch. His image laid the groundwork for Hammett’s understanding of the true detective, since he was the operative who trained the young Hammett in surveillance.

Cover. Hammett, Dashiell. The Maltese Falcon. (San Francisco: Arion Press, 1983) From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photo by Laura Ewen
Cover. Hammett, Dashiell. The Maltese Falcon. (San Francisco: Arion Press, 1983). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photo by Laura Ewen.

Aside from his resemblance to Hammett’s trainer, the Continental Op demonstrates another significant feature of Hammett’s early days of detective work. The Continental Agency featured in each of his stories is named for the Continental Trust Building in which Baltimore’s Pinkerton branch was headquartered. Aspects of this building are featured in Hammett’s other works as well – it is a common theory that the valuable statue in his novel The Maltese Falcon was modeled on the black bird ornaments Hammett walked under everyday as he entered the Continental Trust Building. The impressive cover of this special edition provides an image of the falcon, now a well-known icon of both detective fiction and film noir.

These elements and the many other stories and characters he incorporated into his narratives lend Hammett’s writing an integral sense of realism. Not only do his books provide readers with entertainment and adventure, they grant a glimpse behind the scenes into the enthralling world of crime and investigation. Perhaps it is this insider’s allure which has helped maintain the popularity of Hammett’s detective fiction for so many decades.

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