In Which It Remains Nice Of You To Phone Us

dashiell on the flooo

Black Mask

Winter’s still hanging around like somebody you owe money, thought it gets in most of its dirty work at night and we usually manage to pick up a few days of sunshine – that rarity – sometime almost every day. You understand, this here sunshine is not exactly hot enough to scalp you always, but it’s still sunshine, and we are in no position to be finical about it. We take what we can get of it when we can get it and are glad in our groaning, snarling way.

The letters of the American writer Dashiell Hammett are unexpectedly vulnerable, except when he is doing the one thing he felt confident about: discussing how exactly one should go about writing detective stories. In the 1920s he lived in San Francisco and wrote for the fledgling magazine Black Mask. His notes on his stories to the editors of the publication survive long after he himself is gone. They reveal a single-minded individual concerned with the manifold possibilities of what the genre has to offer.

hammett dashiell

June 15 1923

Letter to the Editor of Black Mask

I have been out of town for a couple weeks — I have to go up to the hills to see some real snow at least once each winter — which is why I haven’t answered your letter before this.

About the story: None of the characters is real in a literal sense, though I doubt that it would be possible to build a character without putting into at least something of someone the writer has known. The plot, however, is closer to earth. In the years during which I tried my hand at “private detecting” I ran across several cases where the “friend” called in to dispose of a blackmailer either went into partnership with him or took over his business after getting him out of the way. And I know of at least one case where a blackmailer was disposed of just as “Inch” disposed of “Bush.”

I like Rose’s cover on the February 15th issue!

Sincerely,

S.D. Hammett

in for the teouchown

October 15 1923

Letter to the Editor of Black Mask

Since writing “Slippery Fingers,” I have read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle wherein August Vollmer, chief of police of Berkeley, California, and president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, is quoted as saying that although it is possible successfully to transfer actual fingerprints from one place to another it is not possible to forge them — “Close inspection of any forged fingerprint will soon cause detection.”

It may be that what Farr does in my story would be considered by Mr. Vollmer a transference rather than a forgery. But whichever it is, I think there is no longer reasonable room for doubt that fingerprints can be successfully forged. I have seen forged prints that to me seemed perfect, but not being even an amateur in that line, my opinion isn’t worth much. I think, however, that quite a number of those qualified to speak on the subject will agree with me that it can be, and has been, done.

In the second Arbuckle trial, if my memory is correct, the defense introduced an expert from Los Angeles who testified that he had deceived an assembly of his colleagues with forged prints.

The method used in my story was not selected because it was the best, but because it was the simplest with which I was acquainted and the most easily described. Successful experiments were made with it by the experts at Leavenworth federal prison.

Sincerely,

S.D. Hammett

the dashiell hammetttt

January 1 1924

Letter to the Editor of Black Mask

Thanks for the check for “The Tenth Clew.”

And I want to plead guilty to a bit of cowardice in connection with the story. The original of Creda Dexter didn’t resemble a kitten at all. She looked exactly like a bull-pup! Believe it or not, she looked exactly like a young white-faced bull-pup — and she was pretty in the bargain!

Except for her eyes, I never succeeded in determining just what was responsible for the resemblance, but it was a very real one.

When, however, it came to actually putting her down on paper, my nerve failed me. “Nobody will believe you if you write a thing like that,” I told myself, “They’ll think you’re trying to spoof them.” So, for the sake of plausibility, I lied about her.

Sincerely,

Dashiell Hammett

this writing fellow

In a story titled “Zigzags of Treachery”, Hammett noted, “There are four rules for shadowing: Keep behind your subject as much as possible; never try to hide from him; act in a natural manner no matter what happens and never meet his eye.”

March 1 1924

Letter to the Editor of Black Mask

I’ll have another story riding your way in a day or two: one for the customers that don’t like their sleuths to do too much brain-work.

The four rules for shadowing that I gave in “Zigzags” are the first and last words on the subject. There are no other tricks to learn. Follow them, and once you get the hang of it, shadowing is the easiest of detective work, except, perhaps, to an extremely nervous maqn. You simply saunter along somewhere within sight of your subject, and, barring bad breaks, the only thing that can make you lose him is anxiety on your own part.

Even a clever criminal may be shadowed for weeks without suspecting it. I know one operative who shadowed a forger — a wily old hand — for more than three months without arousing his suspicion. I myself trailed one for six weeks, riding trains and making half a dozen small towns with him; and I’m not exactly inconspicuous — standing an inch or so over six feet.

Another thing: a detective may shadow a man for days and in the end have but the haziest ideas of the man’s features. Tricks of carriage, ways of wearing clothes, general outline, individual mannerisms – all as seen from the rear – are much more important to the shadow than faces. They can be recognized at a greater distance, and do not necessitate his getting in front of his subject at any time.

Back — and it’s only a couple years back — in the days before I decided there was more fun in writing about manhunting than in that hunting, I wasn’t especially fond of shadowing, though I had plenty of it to do. But I worked under one superintendent who needed only the flimsiest of excuses to desert his desk and get out on the street behind some suspect.

Sincerely,

Dashiell Hammett

come down crwod

August 16th 1924

Letter to the Editor of Black Mask

I don’t like that “tragedy in one act” at all; it’s too damned true-to-life. The theater, to amuse me, must be a bit artificial.

I don’t think I shall send “Women, Politics, and Murder” back to you — not in time for the July issue anyway. The trouble is this sleuth of mine has degenerated into a meal-ticket. I liked him at first and used to enjoy putting him through his tricks; but recently I’ve fallen into the habit of bringing him out and running him around whenever the landlord, or the butcher, or the grocer shows signs of nervousness.

There are men who can write like that, but I am not one of them. If I stick to the stuff that I want to write — the stuff I enjoy writing — I can make of a go of it, but when I try to grind out a yarn because there is a market for it, I flop.

Whenever, from now on, I get hold of a story that fits my sleuth, I shall put him to work, but I’m through with trying to run him on a schedule.

Possible I could patch up the “The Question’s One Answer” and “Women, Politics and Murder” enough to get by with them, but my frank opinion of them is that neither is worth the trouble. I have a liking for honest work, and honest work as I see it is work that is done for the worker’s enjoyment as much for the profit it will bring him. And henceforth that’s my work.

I want to thank both you and Mr. Cody for jolting me into wakefulness. There’s no telling how much good this will do me. And you may be sure that whenever you get a story from me hereafter, — frequently, I hope, — it will be one that I enjoyed writing.

Dashiell Hammett

black maskakssk

November 3, 1924

Letter to the Editor of Black Mask

I was born in Maryland, between the Potomac and Patuxent rivers, on May 27, 1894, and was raised in Baltimore.

After a fraction of a year in high school — Baltimore Polytechnic Institute — I became the unsatisfactory and unsatisfied employee of various railroads, stock brokers, machine manufacturers, canners and the like. Usually I was fired.

An enigmatic want-ad took me into the employ of the Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, and I stuck at that until early in 1922, when I chucked it to see what I could do with fiction writing.

In between, I spent an uneventful while in the army during the war, becoming a sergeant; and acquired a wife and daughter.

For the rest, I am long and lean and grayheaded, and very lazy. I have absolutely no ambition at all in the usual sense of the word; like to live as nearly as possible in the center of large cities, and have no recreations or hobbies.

Dashiell Hammett

Harry Block was one of Hammett’s editors at Knopf.

July 14 1929

Dear Mr. Block,

I’m glad you like The Maltese Falcon. I’m sorry you think the to-bed and the homosexual parts of it should be changed. I should like to leave them as they are, especially since you say they “would be all right perhaps in an ordinary novel.” It seems to me that the only thing that can be said against their use in a detective novel is that nobody has tried it yet. I’d like to try it.

Dashiell Hammett

the start of potential

 

 

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