in: Living, Podcast, Reading

• Last updated: September 28, 2021

Podcast #156: The Lost Detective – The Life and Times of Dashiell Hammett

If you like TV shows like True Detective or The Wire, you can thank one man for them: Dashiell Hammett. He’s credited for bringing the detective into the modern era with his stories about the Continental Op and his most well-known hard-boiled character: Sam Spade of Maltese Falcon fame. Hammett brought an edgy grittiness to the detective literature genre that hadn’t been there before. His detectives had demons and it was often hard to know if they were the good guy or the bad guy. The reason Hammett was able to bring a realness to his stories was that he himself was a private detective before he became a writer. But little is known about Hammett’s time as an Op for the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency.

My guest on the podcast wanted to find out why, as well as unearth this forgotten part of the life of one of America’s greatest writers. His name is Nathan Ward and he’s the author of the book, The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett.

Show Highlights

  • Why little has been written about Hammett’s time as a private eye
  • A brief history of the Pinkerton Detective Agency
  • The stories that Hammett wrote that were inspired directly from firsthand experience as a Pinkerton
  • How writing reports as a Pinkerton Detective trained Hammett to become one of the greatest detective writers ever
  • How Hammett transformed from a detective to a writer
  • The inspiration behind Hammett’s most iconic character, Sam Spade
  • The legacy of Hammett in today’s entertainment industry
  • And much more!

Lost detective Dashiell Hammett book cover Nathan ward.

If you’re a fan of hard-boiled detective literature, you’ll want to pick up a copy of The Lost Detective. It was fascinating to see how the firsthand experiences Hammett had as a private detective shaped his career as a writer. What’s more, while Hammett was certainly a drunk lout, his grit and determination to keep working and writing despite having debilitating tuberculosis is inspiring. He was a living embodiment of the axiom that inspiration is for amateurs.


Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. Well, if you enjoy shows like “The Wire” or “True Detective” or “Law and Order,” or if you enjoy film noire, there’s one guy you can thank for that. His name is Dashiell Hammett, and he was a writer through the 1920s and ’30s, and through the ’40s. He is the guy who created the modern detective. He was the man who created one of the most iconic, masculine anti-heroes, Sam Spade, who started off in a book, later became a movie hero played by Humphrey Bogart in the Maltese Falcon. But Dashiell Hammett, he took the detective genre and brought it into the modern era. The reason he was able to do that was that he himself was a detective before he became a writer. He was a private eye for the Pinkerton Detective Agency in his early days. A lot of the stories that he published and wrote were inspired by his own experience, or the experience of other PIs that he knew about.

But the thing is, there’s not that much out there about Dashiell Hammett’s time as a Pinkerton detective. So my guest today, he wanted to find out all about his career and what made Dashiell Hammett Dashiell Hammett. His name’s Nathan Ward. He wrote a book called “The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett.” Had to get him on the podcast because I’m a huge Dashiell Hammett fan. I’m a huge detective novel fan from that time, Raymond Chandler, all those guys. Today on the podcast, we’re going to discuss how Dashiell, or Dashiell, will talk about that, how you pronounce his name in a bit, became Dashiell Hammett, and how his experience as a Pinkerton detective paved the way for the modern American detective novel, and modern American detective television and cinema. If you love this sort of thing, this genre of literature and movies or cinema, you’re going to love this podcast. So without further ado, Nathan Ward, “The Lost Detective.”

All right, hey, Nathan Ward, welcome to the show.

Nathan Ward: Thank you. Thank you. Good to be here.

Brett McKay: Your book is about, it’s called “The Lost Detective.” It’s a biography of Dashiell Hammett. We just were having this interesting conversation before we got on here about how do you pronounce this. I always pronounced it Dashell, but there’s controversy about that.

Nathan Ward: Well, it’s not controversy so much as the family said Dasheel. He said Dasheel. It’s originally a French name, the Dashiells who came over in the 18th century, on his mother’s side. But I just grew up saying Dashell, saying it the wrong way, and so when I remember to, if his family’s in the audience, I’ll say Dasheel. But normally I just say Dashell like everyone else.

Brett McKay: All right. I’m going to say Dashell, too. I was going into this thing saying …

Nathan Ward: That’s fine. We can dumb it down.

Brett McKay: I like that. I like your style. All right, so Dashiell Hammett is 1 of the most influential American writers, but a lot of people don’t know who he is. They probably know who his creations are, for example Sam Spade. He wrote “The Maltese Falcon,” introduced Sam Spade to the American icons of American masculinity. “The Thin Man.” But the thing is, he was really highly influential, but there’s not that much out there about Dashiell Hammett’s life. Why is that?

Nathan Ward: Well, there are several full biographies, one of which, the official one by Diane Johnson was commissioned by Lillian Hellman, his long-time companion. In that book, which is the longest one, there was an agreement that Lillian Hellman herself had to appear pretty early in the book. So poor Diane Johnson had to get him to his early 30s where he met Lillian Hellman in order for their life together to be the rest of the book. Then there’s a very, very good book by Richard Layman that does his whole life. But these are like … They’re like, compared to cross-country trains, and his early life as a detective is just like 1 stop where you could get off, and that’s what I chose to do, is to really immerse myself in this early period of his life and see if there was anything still to be found out about what kind of detective he really was, because part of his authenticity was that he had been an actual Pinkerton detective before he became the consummate detective writer.

Brett McKay: That’s what separates him from all the other ones, right? None of the other famous detective novelists weren’t detectives themselves, like Raymond Chandler or any of those other guys.

Nathan Ward: That’s right. It helps that those guys … He wrote better than most of them, to. You wouldn’t have heard of him if he was just a Pinkerton who tried writing about his Pinkerton adventures, and he couldn’t write. The talent was there from somewhere else.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about this Pinkerton Agency, because this is something that I’ve … You’ve heard about the Pinkertons. I’ve talked about them. You hear about them when you study labor unions and things like that in school. I remember the Pinkertons showed up in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But I didn’t know much about what they did. Why did the Pinkerton Detective Agency exist? It seems like they took on cases that law enforcement should have done. But why was it Pinkerton that did this?

Nathan Ward: It wouldn’t have been able to grow as it did in Europe. Allan Pinkerton was a Scottish immigrant who came over here. He was a barrel maker. One day he solved a smuggling ring, broke a smuggling ring in Illinois, and the local merchants then tried to hire him to solve other cases. He eventually chucked his barrel making business for starting his own agency. He was the first American detective agency. It grew because you had all these emerging towns around rural America. One of the last things you can add is a real police department. You might have a sheriff. You might have a marshal who visits sometimes, but you don’t have a full police department as we now understand it. The Pinkertons would be hired to come to your town, take care of this gang that was bothering the local businesses. They could follow them over city or state lines in a way that a local agency could not. That was one of …

Once the towns along the west had established, had grown up a little bit, they didn’t need the Pinkerton as much for that kind of stuff, and the Pinkertons got into railroad work. They would put a guy in the café car of your train and watch for pilferage among the employees. That’s when they got into more of the labor stuff. They would insert a guy secretly onto the strike committee at your factory and tell you what the plans were for the strike, day by day. Increasingly, they followed the money, and that’s where it was, was in the big corporate accounts like that, strike breaking, the ugly World War I era stuff that people associate with the Pinkertons now. People usually know that, the strike-breaking era stuff, or they know it from Butch Cassidy. But the earlier, rural kind of cases are less familiar.

It was fun to go read through the Pinkerton archives. They just have all the op reports that they wanted you to see from the 19th century. You can see all the outlaw cases, all the bank robber cases and that kind of stuff. It’s enormously fun to read.

Brett McKay: Why did the Pinkertons go away? Was it because the FBI, national law enforcement?

Nathan Ward: That didn’t exist yet.

Brett McKay: Yeah, it didn’t exist. But is that what contributed to its demise?

Nathan Ward: Well, they didn’t go away. They’re sort of … I think they’re owned by a Swedish company now, and they just do sort of security work, international corporate security work, and they don’t answer letters from scholars. That’s the 2 things I know about them.

Brett McKay: You learned that. Okay.

Nathan Ward: They’ve never acknowledged that Hammett worked for them. His actual reports that he would have written as an operative have never emerged anywhere. They were written under aliases. Not aliases, you would be Op #7, or Op #20. My theory is, if it wasn’t a fire, which is what people always say when something disappears, I think that the client was the owner of these reports, especially in your delicate labor cases. I’m sure that if he did that kind of work, my secret hope is that his reports are in some corporate archives somewhere, and nobody knows who wrote them. But they wouldn’t be still with the Pinkertons. That’s what I’m trying to get at.

Brett McKay: Gotcha.

Nathan Ward: They would be to the client.

Brett McKay: If you weren’t able to access the reports that Hammett wrote, and the Pinkertons disavow that Hammett ever worked for them, how did you research this book?

Nathan Ward: They won’t say 1 way or the other. They just won’t confirm it. I don’t know legally why that’s to their advantage, but they just have left it. I guess they can’t prove it 1 way or the other. That’s maybe why. The papers from the specific offices that he worked at, the Baltimore office, the Spokane office, the Seattle office, and the San Francisco office, those are not among the collected papers in the National Archives, that they donated. It is very hard to prove certain things that he said.

Brett McKay: What was the research involved? How did you figure out that he worked in certain places? Was it just diary entries, letters that Hammett wrote? What was your research process like?

Nathan Ward: There were letters. But he didn’t save his letters the way you would want him to. He moved a lot in his life. He lived in a lot of hotels. He pitched them. So those letters, if someone kept the letters he wrote, then that’s great. There was a book of his letters that his wife kept, and various girlfriends kept. That’s good. But you don’t get a lot of correspondence back and forth. The surest way I had of knowing where he lived when was his Army medical file. Because he got tuberculosis in the Army, a nurse would have to come by and give him an examination every few months to determine the amount of disability he should get. Sometimes he’s 40% disabled, and sometimes he’s 60% disabled. You could see his health go up and down throughout the ’20s. You’d know that he was getting less money when he was healthier, and more money when he was near death.

You could sort of track, well, if he claims to have worked a certain very physical case, you could say, well, how could he have climbed the mast of a ship and recovered the stolen gold if he was 60% disabled and tubercular. I would get little indications of what was possible when. But I have to say, he showed up at a lot of jobs for a guy who should have just been in bed for months and months at a time. He was really impressive the way he just kept trying to earn money for his family.

Brett McKay: That’s what surprised me the most, because when I imagined he’s a Pinkerton detective, I thought, okay, he’s going to be this big, burly, Humphrey Bogart type guy. But he was actually not. Like you said, he had tuberculosis. He was actually pretty small. He weighed 130 pounds, or something like that.

Nathan Ward: When he was sick. When he was sick he was 130 pounds. He should have been 150-160. He was 6 feet plus. But rail thin, as they say.

Brett McKay: How long did he work at the Pinkertons? What’s the time frame we’re talking here?

Nathan Ward: He started when he was 21, in 1915. It’s not … He didn’t work straight through 1922. He did a couple years, then he entered the Army right at the end of World War I, the end of 1917. Then he got tuberculosis in the Army. First he got the influenza, and then that weakened him, and he was in this Army hospital where all the cots were about 2 feet apart from each other, so he easily caught tuberculosis in there. Then he went back to part-time Pinkerton work in the northwest. Then he went to a hospital for TB cases, and that’s where he met his wife, who was his nurse. Then he moved to San Francisco. Once he learned by letter that she was pregnant, he asked her to come join him and get married in San Francisco. That’s where he dealt with his last … That’s 1921, the Fall of 1921.

The most influential part of his life would be the 6 to 8 months he worked as a part-time Pinkerton in San Francisco. That’s where he learned the town. That’s where he created his first stories, the Continental Op stories, and that’s where ultimately he created Sam Spade, who lived in the apartment he was living in as he wrote it.

Brett McKay: Do we know anything about the type of work or “missions,” we’ll call them missions, jobs he got? You mentioned that he said that he found the gold on top of a mast. Are we pretty safe to say that was a lot of fabrication? He was embellishing the truth?

Nathan Ward: People loved these stories. Later, when he was known as an ex-detective, the stories just got better and better, because he would be surrounded by literary people who hadn’t done anything like that, and he would just be so … They would eat it up. Of course, it helps solidify his legend, if that’s possible as a verb, and made him even more authentic. He liked telling stories. That’s what he fundamentally is. He’s a great, great storyteller. There’s a school of thought that he has to have been the greatest detective ever in order to be as great a detective writer as he became. I don’t believe that’s true. I think you have to have learned enough to exploit it masterfully, which he did. He doesn’t have to have been the greatest detective of all time, but I think he was a pretty good one, and he was a very observant person. It was the first job he had had that rewarded being an observant person. He was fired from a whole lot of menial jobs before he entered the Pinkertons. It was the first one that stuck.

Then he got tuberculosis, and once he was finally too sick to even get to the office anymore, he started sending out stories to make money. The way I know that is because the nurses that visited him would file reports. First of all, that’s how you know where he was living at certain months. At one point he bragged to a nurse that was visiting him that he was making some extra money as a short story writer. I don’t think he was in his interest to say that, because you want her to say that you should get the maximum disability, right? But he obviously was so giddy about his new success that he told her about it. So there you could exactly date when he was writing what, and so on. If I didn’t have the Army medical file, I really don’t know how I could have done this book. There’s so many gaps in his life. It’s sort of like the biography of his illness.

Brett McKay: How did he decide writing? Was it just like, it’s the only thing I can do in bed in my house? Was that what … Was it sort of necessity that he decided on that? Or did he have an inclination for storytelling, and that’s what drew him to that?

Nathan Ward: I think he was a good storyteller in general. There’s no evidence before he entered the Pinkertons that he wanted to be a writer. I think he had a mother who told him he could be whatever he wanted, which helps. But I don’t think she told him what he should be in particular. But he spent … always was a big reader. I think the most true quote that is ascribed to him is he came back from the San Francisco Public Library, having read a bunch of pulp magazines in the reading room there, and he said, sort of contemptuously, “I could do that.” Meaning also that he would know what he was talking about, unlike the people who were writing those fanciful detection stories. It turned out that he could.

Brett McKay: We’ll talk about these pulp magazines in a bit here, because I think it’s a lost, forgotten part of American literary history, or overlooked. But talk about how did his experience as a Pinkerton help him as a writer. I’m not just talking about he was able to get … he had the experiences that he could call upon to help his stories. But you even make the case in the book that the reports he to write as a Pinkerton Op helped him develop the style of writing that he became famous for.

Nathan Ward: Yes. Once I learned more about how the Pinkerton Agency actually functioned, like once you learned where people would be assigned from around the country for particular cases, and what kind of jobs the average op would be assigned to do, I got to reading the op reports of the other operatives, the ones that are surviving, and there really was a certain literary style, house style, starting with not being judgmental in writing about these street guys and rogues that they had to be interested in to solve these crimes. The whole point of Allan Pinkerton’s approach, as opposed to say, the Sherlock Holmes approach, was assimilation, assimilation with criminals. There is no better way to learn what he learned than having to pass yourself off among rough types.

The discipline of writing up what you see every day, for not just the client, but the supervisors who would sometimes edit what you had written to the client’s liking, that experience, I saw it as like a newspaper. I compared him to Ernest Hemingway at the same time working at the Kansas City Star. Those two institutions did not teach those guys how to write. They came there with their gift. But it was a place where their observing power and lyrical ability was rewarded day after day. It could only have increased their confidence in what they were doing.

So that’s how I looked at it, as opposed to the old way of trying to account for his style was … These English professors would strain themselves trying to prove that he must have read this Hemingway story in the public library in 1923, and then that excited his imagination and his writing short clipped street dialogue. There was a certain amount of it that was in the air in America in general, because people wanted to sound wised up, because they’d been to the war and the war made people more cynical. But I just don’t see it. I don’t see it just coming from reading, although he’d read a lot. I think it was this experience as a Pinkerton Op that really honed him.

Brett McKay: How did … Are there any specific real experiences that he had as a Pinkerton Op that ended up in some of the stories that he wrote?

Nathan Ward: Well, let’s see. There are 2 things that come up again and again and again in his stories. One is his very first story was radical in that it starts with not a Pinkerton Op, but an operative for a fictional agency on a river in Burma. He’s been chasing this thief for, I don’t know if it’s 2 or 3 years, since they were both in New York. It opens with him, he’s cornered his man. The contemporary stories at the time, he would be totally admirable, and he would get his man and bring him back. Instead, the story ends with him being offered this bribe. “If you come into the jungle with me, I will share my stolen ruby collection with you.” It ends with him thinking it over. That’s the end of the story.

This I found … Hammett himself was once trailing a guy named Easterwald from 1 state to another, who was accused of stealing jewels. Finally the guy came up to him on a park bench where Hammett thought he was discretely watching him in the park and said, “You look familiar. Do I know you from somewhere?” It was because he’d been following him from state to state, and so of course he was familiar. They got to talking, and the guy started to offer him part of his scam. Hammett then turned him in, and he was arrested when he arrived where he was going.

That’s not as dramatic as what he made of it in his first story, but you see it throughout his other stories, where a woman will come up and try to seduce the detective, who throws her over. Then he perfected and perfected it, until “The Maltese Falcon” has the most famous example. In there, it’s loyalty to his dead partner that gives him the strength to turn down the offer. But I think there’s events like that that he would just then refashion and refashion. Each time it wasn’t perfect, and he would do it again.

He has a lot of themes that he would return to until he had gotten it right. Whereas other people would be afraid they were repeating themselves, he was sort of like perfecting it.

Brett McKay: I see you made the case, too, that some of the detectives that he worked with, even some of the bosses he worked for, ended up in some of his short stories as … They inspired characters in the stories. I guess the one thing he does is the old man in his Continental Op series.

Nathan Ward: Yes. The old man, again in the other biographical works, there’s this assumption that the old man was based on Phil Giak, who had been his supervisor in San Francisco. But when I looked into Phil Giak’s actual biography and description, he was like 40 years old, and short and fat, more like the Continental Op. But Hammett had said that at some dinner, and so people just believed it. I think that the old man, who was described as having a white mustache, and being a glowering older figure in his 70s, much more resembled the most famous Pinkerton of all, who wasn’t an actual Pinkerton family member, McParland, James McParland, who was the operative who cracked the Molly McGuire ring.

Brett McKay: Gotcha. So Hammett cut his teeth writing with these pulp fiction magazines. Like I said, it’s often forgotten part of American literary history. What sort of stuff would people find in the pulps, what kind of stories? Besides the detective stuff. Was it just sort of low brow?

Nathan Ward: Originally, they did everything. They’d have horror. They’d have weird tales. They’d have sort of erotica, not like erotica now, but what the magazine called saucy tales, things like that. And westerns. Westerns were big. Hammett loved westerns, and there’s a certain critical school that sees the detective story as the western come into urban setting. And there’s something to that, which is why he’d play jokes on that, like when he has 1 where the Continental Op leaves San Francisco, and he goes to Arizona, and he has to ride a horse around. There’s a rustling gang and everything, and he can’t ride the horse.

He would make fun of the genres he was writing about at the same time. That’s one of the great misunderstood things about Hammett, is how funny he is. It’s okay to send up the thing that you are also participating in at the same time, and I think that makes some people uncomfortable. Like, is this serious or not? He’s making fun of it at the same time. He was always amusing himself. His work is full of in jokes to himself, just to amuse himself, starting with the Continental Agency, which is his mythical version of the Pinkerton Agency, because he first worked in the Continental Building in Baltimore. That’s where the Pinkertons were.

Brett McKay: Gotcha. Yeah, you can really see his humor shine through in “The Thin Man,” I think.

Nathan Ward: Yes.

Brett McKay: It’s hilarious. The back and forth dialogue is amazing in that book.

Nathan Ward: Especially that one. That’s where he sort of had … He’s sort of given up on the classic detective novel by then. That’s like a … It’s hard to describe, but the protagonist is an ex-detective. The writer is an ex-detective, and he’s out of his element. But he’s just there to have a good time, and his wife keeps telling him to go back to what he used to do to solve the crime. It’s a funny, self-referential thing.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about Sam Spade, because this is the most iconic character of Dashiell Hammett thanks to Humphrey Bogart. Where did Sam Spade come from? Did that have any … Did his Pinkerton experience have any influence on the creation of Sam Spade?

Nathan Ward: I really don’t think so. I think Sam Spade is, as he said, he’s a dream man. He’s what all the guys he used to work with wished they could be, or thought they sometimes were. That’s how he described it. The thing about Sam Spade, in Pinkerton terms, you can see him as the absolute product of assimilation. He’s so assimilated with criminals that you really don’t know what he’s going to do. Is he crooked, or is he pretending to be crooked? That’s how he plays both sides to do his job, is that he’s absolutely unpredictable except for his loyalty to the client, no matter how scummy. He’ll still take their money and give it his all, but you don’t know what he really thinks about anything, except when he’s pushed to it, as he says, “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it.” So there’s a buddy element in the end.

But this is the same guy who was sleeping with his partner’s wife while he was alive. He’s not like your best friend. But he does have a point. He does have an outer limit. Because he’s so unpredictable, I just think he seems more lifelike than all the copycat detectives that he inspired. There’s something about Sam Spade. He’s just so alive on the page in a way that nothing Mickey Spillane ever did is the same. He’s mercurial, but he’s fascinating. And he has no history. There’s no … You don’t find about his childhood. There’s no inner monologues. And yet everybody has an idea of what Sam Spade is about.

Brett McKay: Well, the only thing we do know that inspired Sam Spade, or part of the character of Sam Spade, is Sam Spade’s apartment. I thought that was really interesting.

Nathan Ward: Oh, yeah. That’s right.

Brett McKay: Can you talk a little bit about Sam Spade’s apartment a Dashiell Hammett apartment?

Nathan Ward: Well, when he wrote that book, and “Red Harvest,” he was living in basically a 500 square foot studio on Post Street, which is still there, in San Francisco. He had originally ended up there because he’d have these flareups of his tuberculosis, and the doctor said he had to live apart from his young children, because it’s unhealthful. So he moved around San Francisco, and sometimes he would come back. He was living in this little apartment, writing his brains out. It actually allowed him to write the novels that he finally wrote.

To me the most moving part of writing this is there’s this famous part of the book. It’s known as the Flitcraft Parable. He didn’t call it that, but that’s what people call it. In which Sam Spade tells this story about a man named Flitcraft who was on is lunch hour 1 day and a beam fell and just missed killing him. It hit the sidewalk next to him and a piece of cement hit his cheek. He was so unnerved by this that he had to abandon his life as it was. He left his wife and his child and relocated to another town where he started up exactly the same kind of life. The point of the story is, as Spade tells it, he adjusted to beams falling, and then he adjusted to them no longer falling in his new life.

Then Spade is hired to go find him by Mrs. Flitcraft. He does, but he leaves him alone, rather than bring him back, which you think would be the Spade-like thing to do. He’s like a bulldog. If you’re hired to go retrieve somebody, why doesn’t he bring him back? I’ve always thought that was strange, until I realized at that moment that Hammett was writing it, he was living apart from his family, and he was contemplating leaving San Francisco all together and going to New York. His book was going to come out, and he was going to get some more movie money, and then to just start his life apart from them.

The Flitcraft Parable is Hammett really talking to himself about this decision. I just found that very moving. When you read these books about an artist, you are supposed to root at every point for them to move through their lie to the part where they become the great artist that you got interested in in the first place. At this point, as a father and a writer, I felt some of the uneasiness that he must have felt. He really made a choice. What he did was, he moved his wife and his daughters to Hollywood, where they were supposed to just wait for him to become a success in Hollywood and come back and live with them. Well, he never lived with them, but he did visit them there, and he did take care of them. But he lived the life that we associate with him ever since, the Lillian Hellman life, and the going to parties and hanging around in Hollywood, and drinking too much. That’s where that started.

Brett McKay: He basically did the whole F. Scott Fitzgerald thing. Just write movies and drink a lot.

Nathan Ward: Yes. But I think, unlike Scott Fitzgerald, I think in Hammett’s case, he had come so close to death with tuberculosis, that I really don’t think he expected to live very long. Maybe years, but not like years and years. The miscalculation he made was that he would live as long as he did. That’s … the mystery is always, oh, why did he stop writing, which actually he stopped publishing, but he didn’t stop writing. I really think he thought he could still go at any time.

Brett McKay: We talked about Hammett and his days at Pinkerton and how it influenced his career. But what’s Hammett’s legacy today? What authors did he influence, and where can we see the fingerprints of Hammett’s in pop culture right now?

Nathan Ward: Well, I think he’s in most cop shows. What he started with the giving all the procedural background stuff, then we drove over to here, then we watched their house for a while, then we followed her into the supermarket, things that before him would have been thought to be dull and no one wants to read that. They just want nice murder mysteries set in an estate, and you round up the swells who were at the house that weekend, and 1 of them must have been the killer. What he did was, with his early op stories … It’s like making literature out of the op reports that he had written before. It’s the same format of following the detective around and making literature out of the tedium of investigation.

Once he introduced that, then it became like a competitive sport, like who would have the most authentic background. Then by the ’40s you have detective movies were they’re talking about the skeleton of the corpse, and obviously she was less than 24 years old, because look at the development of the femur. That kind of stuff, all the way to CSI. I think that’s … he started that procedural form.

Or look at something like Bones … What’s the show? Any show where there’s like a man and a woman flirting on the crime scene solving crimes. It’s all from “The Thin Man.” “McMillan and Wife,” or “Castle.”

Brett McKay: “Castle,” yeah.

Nathan Ward: That’s another trope of his. I don’t know that he’d love all those shows, but I think that you can definitely trace it directly to him. “True Detective” would be unthinkable without him. I don’t think he would have liked this season, but the first season. I don’t know. He’s certainly in Michael Connoly, Dennis Lang. He’s in a lot of stuff out there now.

Brett McKay: Well, cool. Hey, Nathan …

Nathan Ward: People mix him up with Chandler, which is unfortunate. Chandler was his biggest fan. They don’t write the same. I think what it goes back to is Humphrey Bogart playing both their heroes. People mix them up because Humphrey Bogart played both. The same way people mix up Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone because Fess Parker played them both. They haven’t always read the books, so they rely on the movies.

I’ve also noticed that when “The Maltese Falcon” was chosen by the Wall Street Journal as the Book of the Month for online discussions, it was clobbered for Sam’s sexism, which is like, I don’t see what they were expecting to read. But I just couldn’t imagine people having the same reaction with an old movie. Somehow people are smarter now about film than they are about old novels, which is, I think, sad. But I couldn’t imagine saying the same things about the film of the book. That’s just my impression.

Brett McKay: Interesting.

Nathan Ward: I think he also invented what we call noir with “The Maltese Falcon.” That whole … It’s removed, and then he zooms in on the ashtray on Sam’s desk, and then Sam rolls another cigarette. It’s so atmospheric in a way that movies would not be for another 10 years. The film “The Maltese Falcon” was in 1941, and he wrote that in 1929. But all the noir stuff in film was years after what the writers were doing in “The Black Mask” and the pulps and “True Detective Magazine.” It just took that much longer for the movie audience to be wised up by the Depression and World War II to want that kind of film. I don’t know. I mean, I can’t really explain. I’m not a cinema person. But I definitely see what became film noir in “The Maltese Falcon” and not really before that.

Brett McKay: Well, fascinating. Well, hey …

Nathan Ward: The book, I mean.

Brett McKay: Well, Nathan, this has been a fascinating conversation. Where can people learn more about the book? Just Amazon?

Nathan Ward: Amazon’s good. Bloomsbury. You mean where else can they buy it?

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Nathan Ward: Amazon’s as good as any, yeah.

Brett McKay: All right. Well, Nathan Ward, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Nathan Ward: All right. Well, thank you.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Nathan Ward. He’s the author of the book “The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett.” Or Dashell Hammett. You can find that on, or bookstores everywhere.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at If you enjoy this podcast, as always, I’d really appreciate if you’d take the time to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. Help us give us some feedback on how we can improve the show, as well as let other people know about the podcast. As always, thank you for your continued support of the podcast. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, telling you to stay manly.

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