Mystery makers: For Sayers, Lord Peter was mere whimsy Hammett stepped out of Pinkerton into print; Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett, by Richard Layman. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich $14.95.
Drawing on his experiences as a detective with the Pinkerton Agency from 1915 to '18 and 1919 to '20, Dashiell Hammett began to write hard-boiled detective stories for Black Mask and other magazines in the 1920s. His stories were different, innovative; Hammett "wrote scenes," said Raymond Chandler "that seemed never to have been written before."
Hammett's first novel, "red Harvest," was published in 1929. "The Dain Curse ," "The Maltese Falcon," "The Glass Key," and "The Thin Man" appeared during the next five years. For all appeared during the next five years. For all intents and purposes, that was the end of Hammett's career as one of America's finest prose stylists.
On the strength of his reputation as a novelist, Hammett was hired as a screenwriter in the 1930s. He spent a lot of time in Hollywood drawing a handsome salary, spending most of it (in 1937 he told frinds: "I've decided to live flamboyantly"), drinking heavily, but doing little writing.
Still, he could live comfortably off royalties and movie and syndication rights without screenwriting. Hammett even wrote a comic strip -- "Secret Agent X-9," begun in 1934, for Hearst's King Features.
His health had never been good after he was stricken with a protracted illness in World War I. But Hammett somehow managed to enlist in the Army in 1942 -- at age 48. He spent two war years on Adak in the Aleutian Islands editing the camp newspaper.
Then, in 1951, Hammett was called before a committee investigating communist participation in the Civil Rights Congress bail fund. Although he could have answered few of the committee's questions, Hammett repeatedly took the Fifth Amendment; this earned him a contempt-of-court citation and six months in prison.
The facts of Hammett's life, amplified considerably, appear in Richard Layman's "Shadow Man." Although much of what we know of Hammett from the 1930s until his passing in 1961 comes by way of Lillian Hellman, whom Hammett met in 1931 and with whom he spent the remainder of his life, on and off, Layman's biography was written without Hellman's cooperation.
Given this situation, Layman has overfilled the book with synopses of Hammett's stories and novels, and with the events of Hammett's life. "Facts are the important things" in writing a biography, says Layman, but while biographers have to be accurate, facts must be given inflections. Layman's book speaks in a monotone.