August 10, 1981 12:00 PM

by Richard Layman

Layman, an author and book editor in Columbia, S.C., has tried to write a biography of the great mystery novelist by linking Hammett’s fiction to events in his life. Hammett in fact worked for a short time as a detective. While in the Army near Baltimore during World War I, he contracted TB. After a discharge, he went back to private eye work in San Francisco, then consciously set out to turn the detective genre into literature. He was a handsome, sometimes unpleasant womanizer. When Hollywood paid him huge sums for films of The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key and the Thin Man series, he squandered money faster than it came in; he became an alcoholic and was irresponsible to his wife, Jose (whom he had abandoned in 1929), his two daughters and his friends. Success ruined his own literary career, but he had met Lillian Hellman in 1930 and become her mentor and lover. Hellman later looked after him with a protectiveness that continues; she owns the rights to Hammett’s works and letters and refused to let Layman use them. Just as well, in this case. The writing of this book is pedestrian and repetitive. Its complex subject deserves much better. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $14.95)

You May Like