COLUMBIA, SC – A major collection of letters, photos and publications of the late crime fiction author Dashiell Hammett has been acquired by the University of South Carolina and will be made available to students and scholars within the coming year.
Hammett was a high school dropout who created such iconic American characters as the gritty gumshoe Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon” and the witty, worldly couple Nick and Nora Charles in “The Thin Man.”
University officials spoke with The Associated Press about the acquisition prior to its announcement, which is scheduled for Wednesday in Columbia at the Thomas Cooper Library.
Dean of Libraries Tom McNally said the collection includes hundreds of family letters, photographs, personal effects and documents from Hammett’s daughter Josephine, 89, and two of his grandchildren. It is bolstered by more than 300 Hammett books and rare first editions, as well as dozens of screenplays, files, documents and serialized magazines compiled by Hammett biographer and Columbia publisher Richard Layman.
The grouping includes a replica of the black Maltese Falcon statuette from the 1941 film that made actor Humphrey Bogart a sought-after leading man. It includes 400 letters that Hammett wrote to his wife and two daughters as well as 70 letters written by Hammett’s off-and-on companion in his later years, playwright Lillian Hellman.
“This is the collection of Hammett material,” McNally said in an interview. “There is no equal to it in terms of published materials, not to mention the Hammett letters.”
McNally said the acquisition was made through gift-and-purchase agreements with the family and Layman, supported by private donations to a university foundation. He declined to disclose the financial details.
Hammett popularized pulp fiction in the 1920s and 1930s. Scholars say his work elevated crime fiction to literary masterpieces. His stories were peppered with allusions to San Francisco streets and landmarks, including a scene in “The Maltese Falcon” that cites Hammett’s own apartment building at 891 Post St.
“He wrote for a magazine that had a blue-collar audience,” said Layman, 67, a publisher of literary reference books who lives in Columbia. The Louisville, Ky., native has written or edited nine books on Hammett. “But his work was very good detective fiction. You could argue that two of his novels, ‘The Maltese Falcon’ and ‘The Glass Key,’ were the first existential novels in America.”
Otto Penzler, owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City and a publisher and editor of crime fiction, said he was pleased such a wide array of material about Hammett will be within the reach of researchers, students and teachers at a public university.
“Dashiell Hammett is the single most important figure in 20th century mystery fiction,” Penzler said in a telephone interview. “The acquisition of the Hammett papers is a major coup for South Carolina.”
Born in Maryland in 1894, Hammett left high school after one semester to help support his family. He joined the Pinkerton Detective Agency in 1915 and worked for the agency after he moved to San Francisco. He enlisted in the Army during World War I and contracted tuberculosis during his time in the service.
Hammett’s health forced him to quit detective work. He started to adapt his experiences gleaned from city streets and back alleys for realistic stories peppered with true-to-life dialogue and believable characters, Layman said. His first four novels were serialized in the colorful magazine “Black Mask,” and 42 rare copies that include Hammett’s stories are part of the collection.
“He became a literary celebrity,” Layman said, adding that “The Maltese Falcon” became the first detective novel published in the prestigious Modern Library. “Hammett was sought after as a screenwriter in Hollywood and his works were widely adapted for radio,” Layman said.
The author returned to the Army during World War II and was honorably discharged, but his final years were troubled. His ill health returned, he was blacklisted and jailed for six months for contempt of court after he refused to testify about his left-wing connections. He died in 1961 of lung cancer in New York City.
Penzler praised Layman and the Hammett family for making the collection available.
“Thank goodness there are people who do these sorts of things, because otherwise these documents might be lost forever,” Penzler said.