On the whole writers are clever fellows, or if one must descend to current terminology, clever persons. At best they are intelligent, more often than not styled with wit and possessing understanding of the human scene, comic, tragic, and midway. Why then are biographies about writers such dull pieces?

Perhaps it is because there isn’t much to dramatize in someone’s clicking away his thoughts on a typewriter or clutching a ballpoint pen over a pad of paper. Pre-twentieth-century writers are excepted, for they are period characters and the period itself whets interest. The attempt to make picaresque the writers of modern times proves only that exploits with bed and bottle are instant tedium.

Dashiell Hammett was a good writer. He cared about the craft. He made this plain in his writings about writing, revealing it also in his letters to publishers and editors and in his...


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