SHADOW MAN: The Life of Dashiell Hammett by Richard Layman

SHADOW MAN: The Life of Dashiell Hammett

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KIRKUS REVIEW

In a preface here, Layman proudly states that ""Research has taken precedence over invention or speculation."" Unfortunately, it has also taken precedence over insight, judgment, or readability--and the result is a conscientious, dull, unfocused, and ill-written book, handicapped even on its own information-gathering terms by the fact that Hammett's executrix, Lillian Hellman, offered no assistance. Tubercular and ne'er-do-well-ish son of a shady, failed businessman, Hammett had to drop out of school--but found his life's center as a Pinkerton detective (mostly on the west coast), adopting the tough, moral Pinkerton code of behavior. And when poor health and marriage (to a sanitarium nurse whom he got pregnant) pushed him into writing, he used this experience to become a short-story star of Black Mask and other pulp magazines. Novels followed, starting with Red Harvest (1929), but within five years Hammett was written out; Layman vaguely blames ""the liquor, the women, the money, and the celebrity"" that came with Hollywood-contracts success. But why the alcoholism? Layman hasn't a clue (except for one glib like-father/like-son remark). Nor is there the slightest attempt to understand Hammett's relationships (with his wife, Hellman, others) or his left-wing political activities in the Thirties and Forties (""it seems likely"" that he joined the Communist Party)--which led to a 22-week contempt-of-court imprisonment in 1951. Layman concentrates instead on: ungainly (even undergraduate,) summaries of everything Hammett ever wrote; undergraduate clichÉ-ridden critiques (""By telling Spade's story in the omniscient third-person voice, Hammett was able to characterize him fully while not compromising that characterization with the implied openness of a first-person narration""); 24 pages of verbatim courtroom transcript; and bland details of Hammett's uneventful WW II service. Of some value, then, as a documentary compilation--but anyone looking for a real biography will want to wait for the Hellman-authorized study being written by novelist Diane Johnson.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1981
ISBN: 0897230523
Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich