Few authors have had such a considerable influence on their respective genres as Dashiell Hammett. Often described as the father of the hardboiled detective genre, Hammett is regarded as one of the finest mystery writers of all time. Hammett is best known for his iconic characters and innovative approach to detective fiction and his writing style, known for its sparse prose and snappy dialogue, has had an enduring influence on development of the genre.
Hammett only wrote five full length novels, but his work is widely read and celebrated to this day. Several of his works went on to inspire award winning films and tv series. His success as a detective fiction writer is no surprise when one considers his background.
Hammett was born to a poor rural family in St. Mary’s County, Maryland in 1894. His early life was one of hardship and struggle and Hammett dropped out of school at the age of 13, working a series of menial jobs for several years. This all changed when he joined the infamous Pinkerton detective agency in 1915. He worked there for seven years and his experiences as a detective later informed much of his writing.
Best Dashiell Hammett Books
|The Continental Op Series||9.86/10||2 Books||Check Price On Amazon|
|The Glass Key||9.74/10||224 Pages||Check Price On Amazon|
|The Glass Key||9.72/10||175 Pages||Check Price On Amazon|
|The Maltese Falcon||9.66/10||217 Pages||Check Price On Amazon|
|Woman in the Dark||9.58/10||96 Pages||Check Price On Amazon|
The Continental Op Series
Whenever Dashiell Hammett books are ranked his Continental Op series is always at the top, and for good reason. The series, which consists of a combination of novels and short stories is really what earned Hammett his title as one of the founding fathers of the hardboiled detective genre. The series follows The Continental Op, an unnamed private investigator who works for the mysterious Continental Detective Agency.
The Continental Op series was published between 1923 and 1930 and was one of the earliest examples of hardboiled detective fiction. The series is known for its gritty realism, its unsentimental portrayal of violence and crime, and its fast-paced, no-nonsense prose.
What makes these the best rated Dashiell Hammett books is without a doubt the Continental Op himself. He’s written deliberately vaguely, an everyman with no physical or personal characteristics. While traditional detectives of fiction were motivated by a strong sense of justice or morality, the Op is purely motivated by his desire to get the job done and get paid. He is also not averse to bending the rules or using violence when necessary.
This lack of a defined personality and general ambiguity allows the character to be a chameleon, able to blend in with any situation or group he’s investigating. This gives can make the novels feel more like a spy thriller at times, with the Op assuming different identities to gain the trust of suspects and witnesses. While this makes him a great investigator, the books examine how this trait impacts his personal life and relationships. He is a loner dedicated to work and little else.
For the most part the stories of series are set in a fictionalized version of San Francisco. Hammett’s skillful depiction of the city is what make these some of the top Dashiell Hammett books. The city is almost a character in and of itself, portrayed as a dark and dangerous place, where the police are useless, and justice is bought and sold.
In fact, corruption is one of the key themes of the series. Hammett was writing the stories during the prohibition era, a time of widespread corruption and organized crime and it’s easy to see where the author took inspiration from. The Op repeatedly comes up against corrupt officials, politicians and business men and the stories explore the ways in which corruption can spread, infecting even those who are supposed to uphold the law.
Dashiell Hammett book reviews often praise his writing style and everything which made him a great writer is on show in this series. The stories are known for their innovative structure and storytelling techniques. Hammett’s prose is always sparse and straight to the point, wasting no time on flowery descriptions or exposition. The author’s style reflects the personality of the Op himself.
This makes sense since the stories are usually told from the hero’s point of view. The reader experiences events exactly as the Op does, giving the stories a sense of immediacy and realism which was groundbreaking at the time. This innovation stretches to Hammett’s use of dialogue. Characters speak in a rapid-fire style full of slang and colloquialisms.
The biggest mystery readers of this series will face, however, is how to read these Dashiell Hammett books in order. The books couldn’t have a more confusing publication history. They started as short stories then became novels, then back to short stories before being combined into various short story compilations.
The series only really features two full long novels, Red Harvest, and The Dain Curse and even these originally started out as short stories. My advice would be to start with these two and then slowly work through the myriad short stories. This way readers will also experience the little bit of character growth that the Op experiences.
The Glass Key
The Glass Key is often referred to as one of the best Dashiell Hammett books and I can’t argue with that. The novel has all the hallmarks of a great Hammett piece. Corruption, mystery, intrigue, and a little romance.
The book’s protagonist is Ned Beaumont who works as a political fixer for his boss, Paul Madvig. Beaumont knows that his boss is a corrupt wheeler and dealer but believes that in his heart, his boss isn’t a bad guy. It comes as a shock then when Madvig becomes a suspect in the murder of a senator’s son.
Beaumont sets out to clear his boss’s name. But as he investigates further, he gets himself tangled in a web of political intrigue, corruption, and deeply personal rivalries. He’s loyal to his boss but soon finds himself attracted to the victim’s sister, Taylor Henry. As the book goes on Beaumont’s loyalty, represented by a glass key, becomes increasingly fragile.
The Glass Key is famed for its complex plot that balances multiple storylines and characters. As with the best books by Dashiell Hammett, it’s also known for its sharp, snappy dialogue and unsentimental depiction of the worlds of politics and organized crime.
What makes this perhaps the best Dashiell Hammett book (and that’s a big claim) is the book’s core. The novel is all about loyalty and betrayal and is fascinating deep dive into the relationships that exist between powerful men. The Glass Key is a masterpiece of hard-boiled crime, a suspenseful tale that explores the dark underbelly of American politics. Read it.
The Thin Man
A Retired Couple
These days the cliche of the retired hero coming out of retirement for one last hurrah is a little tired. However, when The Thin Man, one of the best novels by Dashiell Hammett, was written in 1934 the idea was still innovative. The book follows Nick Charles, a retired private detective, and his wife, Nora, as they solve a series of crimes.
Nick is dragged out of retirement upon returning home to New York after a lengthy vacation. An old acquaintance, Clyde Wyanant, is waiting for them. He’s been accused of murdering his former secretary and he needs Nick’s expertise to clear his name.
The Happy Couple
Being the hero, of course, Nick agrees. He and Nora investigate the murder and find themselves embroiled in a complex web of lies and deceit. As they dig deeper, they discover the murder isn’t isolated but is part of a much larger series of interconnected crimes including theft, kidnapping, and more murders.
The highlight of the book is the relationship between Nick and Nora. Hammett pretty much single-handedly invented the hard-boiled detective trope with his Continental Op series. The Thin Man is the opposite. Nick isn’t a solitary hero, he’s part of a happily married team. Their playful dynamic and witty sense of humor add a much-needed element of fun and romance to the story.
The Thin Man is one of the best-selling Dashiell Hammett books and was later adapted into a popular film series. I would put this down to it being one of the most fun, and in many ways, light-hearted books by Hammett.
The witty banter and playful relationship between his protagonists is a cheerful counterpoint to his usual dark and dangerous fare. These traits make it the best Dashiell Hammett book for those looking for a palate cleanser after his other works.
The Maltese Falcon
To this day The Maltese Falcon is one of the most popular Dashiell Hammett books and is considered a master class in how to write a hard-boiled detective story. It’s a story about greed, betrayal, and the search for truth in a world where everyone but our hero seems to be completely morally bankrupt.
This time the book follows two detectives, the cynical Sam Spade and his partner, Miles Archer. The pair are hired by the wealthy Miss Wonderley to track down her sister, who has eloped with a man called Floyd Thursby. Little do they know Miss Wonderley is in fact the treacherous Brigid O’Shaughnessy, who will do whatever it takes to get her hands on a valuable statuette, the titular Maltese Falcon.
She’s not the only one. Soon, Miles has been shot and Sam finds himself both hunter and hunted. If he wants to avenge his partner, he must navigate a treacherous world of double-crosses and betrayals to uncover the truth behind the Falcon and bring the villains to justice.
What makes this one of the top Dashiell Hammett books is its iconic cast of characters. The tough and cynical Sam Spade is easy to root for as he battles unforgettable villains like Joel Cairo and Casper Gutman. All the characters in the book, besides Sam, are united by one singular trait, greed. This makes the novel a gripping and suspenseful read as you never know who is going to screw over who next.
Woman in the Dark
Woman in the Dark disappeared from Dashiell Hammett book lists for many years, which is a real shame. It was first published in installments in Liberty magazine in 1933 but was largely forgotten until it was re-published in 1989 as a novella.
A damsel in distress, Luise Fischer, walks out on her wealthy thug of a keeper, Kane Robson. As she flees, she trips and hurts her ankle. Her only choice is to seek refuge in the first house she comes across. The man and woman who live there welcome her in, and that’s when all breaks loose.
The man who lives there is Brazil. He’s only just gotten out of prison for murder and he’s already hosting a different damsel in distress. Soon after Luise’s arrival some of Robson’s men come to take her back. Brazil isn’t big on confinement and comes to her aid. He badly wounds one of the men and now he and Luise must flee together.
Woman in the Dark has much more of a focus on romance than Hammett’s other books and it has been claimed it was inspired by his own romance with the playwright, Lillian Hellman. This makes sense as the novella is quite unlike anything else Hammett wrote. It also means it’s the best Dashiell Hammett book for the romantics out there.
Woman in the Dark isn’t the best Dashiell Hammett novel. He feels torn between writing his usual dark, twisting style of a detective thriller and telling a more traditional romantic story. In particular, the ending, something that Hammett usually excels at, feels a little weak and contrived.
Still, this is one of the best Dashiell Hammett novels for readers who like a little more romance. The characters are well-written and the book features Hammett’s uniquely snappy dialogue. Even Hammett’s weaker works stand out.
Return of the Thin Man
You know your book has done well when you’re asked to write a sequel. This is what happened with the Thin Man. Its movie version was so popular that Hammett was commissioned to author new stories for subsequent films.
This commission turned into two full-length novellas, After the Thin Man and Another Thin Man. These have now been combined into Return of the Thin Man. Nick and Nora are once against ragged out of retirement when they return home to find Nora’s family gardener has been murdered.
Cat and Mouse
Of course, they don’t take this lying down and begin to investigate. As they do so they’re dragged into another deadly game of cat and mouse. Throughout the two novellas Nick and Nora are dragged into a complicated web of deceit that includes murder, kidnapping and blackmail. As they try to find the truth, powerful families try their best to silence our favorite couple.
Just like the original novel, Return of the Thin Man’s strength lies in its leads. Despite the fact Hammett wrote the novellas decades after the original piece, they still capture the wit and romance that made The Thin Man so special.
The Adventures of Sam Spade and Other Short Stories
There isn’t room on this list for all of Dashiell Hammett’s short stories and their collections, so I’ve chosen to focus on The Adventures of Sam Spade and other Short stories. This is perhaps the best Dashiell Hammett book for anyone wanting a crash course on what makes the author so beloved.
The book contains seven short stories that all represent what Hammett does best. They feature tough, no-nonsense protagonists, intricate plots, and gritty urban settings. The sharp dialogue, spare rose, and attention to detail that Hammett was famous for are all here in abundance.
The highlight for me of this book though is the return of Sam Spade, of Maltese Falcon fame. Spade was one of Hammett’s most memorable protagonists and it’s a dream to see return for one final hurrah.
“The Adventures of Sam Spade and Other Stories” is a must-read for fans of hardboiled detective fiction and crime fiction in general. Hammett’s writing is as fresh and engaging today as it was when these stories were first published.
Overall, Dashiell Hammett only wrote 5 full-length novels alongside a host of short stories and novellas. No one knows why he stopped publishing at a relatively young age. It could have been his chronic health issues, supposed alcoholism, disillusionment with the literary world, or repeated brushes with the U.S. government over his left-leaning politics. We will never know.
But in my opinion, the fact he stopped publishing his works is one of the great tragedies of 20th century literature. Hammett not only invented the hard-boiled detective genre, but in a handful of books he played with it and let it evolve. One of the greatest writers of the 20th century.
Robert is a science fiction and fantasy geek. (He is also the best looking Ereads writer!) Besides reading and writing, he enjoys sports, cosplay, and good food (don't we all?). Currently works as an accountant (would you believe that?)