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Past and Present

The Subversive History Of Dashiell Hammett

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  American readers know Dashiell Hammett as the author of hard-boiled detective classics, like The Maltese Falcon, and as the long-time romantic partner of playwright Lillian Helmann.

We’re often less familiar with his radical beliefs in equality and political freedom that formed the foundation of his characters’ moral compasses and provided the backdrop to the uncertainty, darkness and ethical conflicts that transform his detective stories into literary fiction.

Hammett’s support of labor and civil rights developed as his political activism increased between the world wars. In 1921, he resigned his long-time position with the Pinkerton Detective Agency because he disagreed with the agency’s increased role in suppressing labor rights with violence.

Hammett was a member of the Communist Party, and was active in the Civil Rights Congress, an organization that fought for the labor, civil and political rights of radical activists and southern African Americans.

In March 1951, at the height of the Red Scare, the FBI raided one of Hammett’s California homes because they believed he was hiding four communist fugitives who had skipped bail. The FBI found neither the fugitives nor evidence to connect Hammett to them, but remained suspicious of Hammett’s relationship to the Civil Rights Congress. By July, the House Un-American Activities Committee had called Hammett to testify. Instead of giving evidence or “naming names,” Hammett simply identified himself.

Later he stated, “I don’t let cops or judges tell me what I think democracy is.” Held in contempt of court for this choice, Hammett spent six months in jail. While his time in jail was short, it demonstrates his deep-seated sense of justice and ethics that form the foundation of his detectives’ characters.