By D.K. Holm
For The Courier 

Book Review: Author Brings Dashiell Hammett, Butte to Life


No one knows when detective fiction writer Dashiell Hammett first heard of Butte, Montana, but we know when the narrator of Red Harvest first heard of Personville, Butte's novelistic stand-in. In the novel's famous opening paragraph, the narrator writes, "I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn't think anything of what he had done to the city's name. Later I heard men who could manage their r's give it the same pronunciation. I still didn't see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves' word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better." Forged in great American prose, this opener also hints broadly at the real identity of Personville.

Hammett is unusual among crime writers in being an actual detective. He worked for the Pinkerton detective agency from 1914 to 1922, and apparently spent some time in Butte as a strikebreaker during the Anaconda mine troubles. According to The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett by Nathan Ward (Bloomsbury USA, $26, 240 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0802776402), Hammett may have participated in the assassination of union organizer Frank Little in July of 1917 in Butte.

Besides the Little affair, there is also the case of the "imposing railroad worker he tricked into custody in Montana," and on another occasion Hammett was transporting a prisoner from a ranch near the dying gold mining town of Gilt Edge to Lewistown when the truck broke down. According to Hammett's account, the "prisoner, who stoutly affirmed his innocence, was clothed only in overalls and shirt. After shivering all night on the front seat his morale was low, and I had no difficulty in getting a complete confession from him while walking to the nearest ranch early the following morning."

Most important of all, his wife, a nurse named Josephine Dolan, was born in Basin, and raised in Butte and Anaconda, where her relatives, the Kent family, included her uncle, "Captain" William Kelly, an executive with the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. The reader wonders if Hammett had any feelings of guilt over his strikebreaking, if indeed he had done any labor attacks, and what Jose, as she was called, thought of it.

No one really knows why Hammett quit the Pinkertons, or even why he more or less retired from writing, but some have speculated that his guilt over his actions in Butte and elsewhere later led him to Communism and the inability to write based on his inability to reconcile his new politics and his old behavior in an action form with conservative leanings. On the other hand, Mr. Ward reminds us that Hammett was an inveterate loafer. Maybe he was simply tired of writing.

Though engagingly well written and researched, the book seems to come from a divided mind. Though obviously admiring of Hammett, and as captivated by his charisma as many other writers, biographers, and the numerous women in his life, Mr. Ward's diligent research unearths a man who besides being a layabout, a heavy smoker and drinker, and a libertine, was perhaps also a pathological liar who embellished the facts of his Pinkerton years with tall tales (his last mistress, Lillian Hellman, obfuscated the facts further with her unreliable memoirs of Hammett). Still, Mr. Ward offers the cogent theory that Hammett's brand of hardboiled writing came about thanks to the house style of Pinkerton case reports. Though none of Hammett's case writings have yet been unearthed, the several that Mr. Ward quotes show the hallmarks of the pre-Hemingway manner of tight-lipped attention to detail.

As Mr. Ward points out, among several who have tracked the links between Red Harvest's Personville and Butte is Montana historian Jack Crowley in Montana Professor (Spring 2008). There are citations for the other analysts in the volume's notes. Mr. Ward concludes by noting that "some reviewers have seen the novel as a muckraking work of semi-reportage like The Jungle. André Gide saw it as a Marxist tract."


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