Bit Players #2: Dashiell Hammett

In 1932, Dashiell Hammett, enjoying the success of The Maltese Falcon, which had been made into a vehicle for Bebe Daniels that year—before the later Bogart version– recalled his time as a Pinkerton detective in San Francisco in 1921.The “funniest case I ever worked on,” he told the New York Herald-Tribune, was the detail assigned to protect Arbuckle during first trial in November 1921. “In trying to convict him everybody framed everybody else.”[1]

There are many instances in print and online where this comment is taken to mean, according to a Guardian blogger, “Hammett came to believe that the rotund comedian was being framed for rape and murder by a District Attorney,” and assume that he really had “investigated the famous – and horrible – case of Fatty Arbuckle and Virginia Rappe.”[1]

Hammett was echoing something he had written six years earlier in a collection of brief autobiographical notes that have come to be referred to as “Seven Pages” by Hammett scholars. Hammett, again channeling the voice of Sam Spade or the Continental Op, glibly wrote “That whole thing was a frame-up, arranged by some of the corrupt local newspaper boys. Arbuckle was good copy, so they set him up for a fall.”[2] This pronouncement is often taken to suggest that Hammett knew Arbuckle was innocent and that the press, especially the Hearst chain, had it in for him. Hammett, for this reason, is often quoted as a sage in his biographies and Arbuckle narratives, as an authority even though he was speaking off-the-cuff, sounding smart, which is good enough for some editors.

Hammett’s brief insight was apparently persuasive enough to have inspired a West End play, Fatty (1988), by Scottish playwright Patrick Prior in which Sam Spade was reimagined trying to clear Arbuckle’s “good name,” and more recently a novel, The Devil’s Garden (2009) by Ace Atkins, which expanded the same concept. While such exploitation of a good quip is marginally entertaining, it provides another example of misinformation gaining traction.

One might think that Hammett, as one with personal involvement, could have written a first-rate fiction or nonfiction book about Arbuckle’s Labor Day party and the subsequent trials.. The names of the investigating police detectives alone – Kennedy, Griffin, Reagan, Duffy, Dolan, McGrath – evoke the characters in his pulp stories. Though while Hammett did have familiarity with San Francisco’s detectives, district attorneys, and like denizens of the city’s Hall of Justice it likely was not because he was an insider. Except for his claim there is no other record that Pinkerton’s was involved with the Arbuckle case. The body of Hammett’s knowledge was more likely a construction derived from San Francisco’s newspapers, hearsay, and his imagination. The few sentences included in “Seven Pages” (1926) were as far as he got in telling the story. But the encounter with Arbuckle that he describes has troubled some Hammett biographers for various reasons. Chief among them the date and where Hammett was known to be at that time, which was mostly bedridden with tuberculosis. He claimed he had encountered Arbuckle in the St. Francis Hotel on Monday, January 16, 1922, in the course of gathering evidence for the second trial. Ignoring that Arbuckle was allegedly banned from the hotel, it’s hard to imagine that he would dare to be seen there while he was out on bail. By Hammett’s account, he had quit Pinkertons by that time and was working as a freelance detective for Arbuckle’s lawyers. Hammett biographers and scholars, who otherwise accept his word as truth, see this chance meeting with Arbuckle as “apocryphal.”

For our narrative, however, it is Hammett’s lack of sympathy for Arbuckle that stands out, his intuition that there is something suspicious about the comedian. But what is left to the imagination. In Hammett’s parlance, perhaps the simplest explanation is that a thin man was giving the “stink eye” to a fat man — or, the cynical detective, surviving on disability pay and part-time gumshoe work, regarded the extravagantly-rewarded Arbuckle as a class enemy.

It was the day before the opening of the second absurd attempt to convict Roscoe Arbuckle of something. He came into the lobby. He looked at me and I at him. His eyes were the eyes of a man who expected to be regarded as a monster but was not yet inured to it. I made my gaze as contemptuous as I could. He glared at me, went on the elevator still glaring. It was amusing. I was working for his attorneys at the time.[3]

Hammett’s claim of “frame-up” is more about a systemic problem, the way justice works, the way people behave when their lives and livelihood are on the line. That his sweeping accusation included Arbuckle among the dirty players is hardly a nuanced reading. The master of detective fiction wasn’t taking sides.

Dashiell Hammett (Library of Congress)

[1] Sam Jordison, “Reading group: Dashiell Hammett, the dean of hard-boiled detective fiction,” Guardian, 16 December 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/dec/16/reading-group-dashiell-hammett-maltese-falcon.

[2] Qtd. in New York Herald Tribune, 12 November 1932.

[3] Qtd. in William F. Nolan, A Life at the Edge (New York: Congdon & Weed, 1983), 18.

[4] Qtd. in William Marling, American Noir: Hammett, Cain, and Chandler (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), 98–99.

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