USC brings works, personal letters of Dashiell Hammett to Hollings Library

The writings of Dashiell Hammett have served as the launching pad for countless classic films, amateur detective careers and late nights spent reading tales of crime on the mean streets. The author’s family and a Columbia biographer unveiled an expansive collection of Hammett’s books, love letters and personal items Wednesday.

The "Black Mask" magazine published some of Hammett's most popular early work. (photo by Rachel Ham)

Black Mask magazine published some of Hammett’s most popular early work. (photo by Rachel Ham)

The University of South Carolina’s Hollings Library already boasts rare editions of works from Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hammett’s fellow crime novelists Elmore Leonard and James Ellory. A new generation of readers now can discover the man behind some of the most prominent examples of crime fiction ever written.

Columbia resident and USC graduate Richard Layman connected with the Hammett family years ago and has been working to merge his personal collection with theirs to give Hammett more recognition and allow others access to his process. Layman is the author of multiple Hammett biographies and first read the crime writer’s books during a class at USC.

“There’s no institution I’d rather see it at than here,” Layman said. “(Hammett is) one of the greats.”

Peggy Binette, assistant director for USC media relations, agreed that the Irvin Department of Rare Books inside the Hollings Library is the perfect place for people who want their collections to be more than just displayed behind glass.

“It’s a teaching library … We want students to see the authorship,” she said.

The Hammett archive will be available for viewing until July 31, but people can request to see pieces at any time in the future. Layman said the collection is approximately half his and half items donated by the family and includes an editor’s response to a submission to crime magazine “Black Mask,” original family photographs and screenplays generated from Hammett’s work.

“I can’t imagine any better pathway to understanding by grandfather and his world,” Hammett’s granddaughter Julie Rivett said.

“I collected everything I could get my hands on,” Layman said.

Elizabeth Sudduth, director of the Irvin Department of Rare Books, said her favorite items are love letters and “the story behind them.” Hammett penned them to his pregnant girlfriend, Jose Dolan, during their 1921 courtship.

The archive also include many personal items including Hammett's detective badge. (photo by Rachel Ham)

The archive also includes many personal items including Hammett’s detective badge. (photo by Rachel Ham)

“You can see his sense of humor,” Sudduth said.

Fans of the genre might know Hammett as the brains behind the surly Sam Spade of “The Maltese Falcon,” made even more famous by Humphrey Bogart in 1941. They might also recognize Hammett’s crime-solving couple Nick and Nora Charles of “The Thin Man.” The later was his last novel but was the basis for a six-film series and a television show.

Rivett said her grandfather was inspired to write compelling crime stories because of his personal experience as a detective with the Pinkerton Agency.

“He believed crime fiction could be literature, something that’s still a debate today,” she said. “He’s still the touchstone people go back to.”

Layman said he thinks people will be stimulated by seeing Hammett’s writing up close and personal at the Hollings Library.

“(The archive) gives an enhanced view of a writer … and can be the beginning not the end,” he said.

For those who aren’t sure where to start in reading Hammett’s works, Layman and Rivett suggest their favorites: “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Glass Key.”

“They were his favorites, too,” Layman said.

The Hammett collection will be on display until July 31. The Hollings Library is accessible through the Thomas Cooper Library on Greene Street.

Kelly Petty contributed to this story. 

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