A jaunty narrative for Hammett and hard-boiled fans only.



Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961), private eye.

Journalist and former American Heritage editor Ward (Dark Harbor: The War for the New York Waterfront, 2011, etc.) began this lively, but ultimately slight, book with a single question: how did Hammett transform himself “from Pinkerton operative to master of the American detective story”? The many biographies of Hammett (Ward cites a few in his bibliography) failed to answer his question, so he set out on his own investigation. Unfortunately, finding little evidence of Hammett’s years working for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, Ward often guesses what Hammett might have felt, done, or thought. Although he speculates, for example, that “doing his scores of operative reports” honed Hammett’s ability to write pithy narratives, none of those reports are in the Pinkerton archive at the Library of Congress. Ward can only deduce what they might have contained from other operatives’ work. Other information about the Pinkerton years came from Hammett researcher and journalist David Fechheimer, who tracked down operatives who had known Hammett. Ward also closely reads Hammett’s detective stories for clues. Since none of his early writing has survived, however, even Hammett’s motivation to become a writer is shrouded in mystery. What is clear was his inability to continue to work for Pinkerton because he was weak, and often bedridden, from tuberculosis contracted during World War I. With a wife and children to support, Fechheimer suggests, “he would have done whatever he had to do to make a buck.” “Down the years,” writes Ward, “Hammett must have wondered what might have happened had he gone on chasing crooks for the agency; whether, once he had run out his string as an operative, he could have settled into a desk job bossing younger detectives.” Or maybe not. Ward ends the biography in 1935, when Hammett was famous, celebrated, and usually drunk.

A jaunty narrative for Hammett and hard-boiled fans only.

Pub Date: Sept. 15, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8027-7640-2

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: April 21, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2015

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Skloot's meticulous, riveting account strikes a humanistic balance between sociological history, venerable portraiture and...


A dense, absorbing investigation into the medical community's exploitation of a dying woman and her family's struggle to salvage truth and dignity decades later.

In a well-paced, vibrant narrative, Popular Science contributor and Culture Dish blogger Skloot (Creative Writing/Univ. of Memphis) demonstrates that for every human cell put under a microscope, a complex life story is inexorably attached, to which doctors, researchers and laboratories have often been woefully insensitive and unaccountable. In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, an African-American mother of five, was diagnosed with what proved to be a fatal form of cervical cancer. At Johns Hopkins, the doctors harvested cells from her cervix without her permission and distributed them to labs around the globe, where they were multiplied and used for a diverse array of treatments. Known as HeLa cells, they became one of the world's most ubiquitous sources for medical research of everything from hormones, steroids and vitamins to gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, even the polio vaccine—all without the knowledge, must less consent, of the Lacks family. Skloot spent a decade interviewing every relative of Lacks she could find, excavating difficult memories and long-simmering outrage that had lay dormant since their loved one's sorrowful demise. Equal parts intimate biography and brutal clinical reportage, Skloot's graceful narrative adeptly navigates the wrenching Lack family recollections and the sobering, overarching realities of poverty and pre–civil-rights racism. The author's style is matched by a methodical scientific rigor and manifest expertise in the field.

Skloot's meticulous, riveting account strikes a humanistic balance between sociological history, venerable portraiture and Petri dish politics.

Pub Date: Feb. 9, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-4000-5217-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2010

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A wonderful page-turner written with humility, immediacy, and great style. Nothing came cheap and easy to McCandless, nor...


The excruciating story of a young man on a quest for knowledge and experience, a search that eventually cooked his goose, told with the flair of a seasoned investigative reporter by Outside magazine contributing editor Krakauer (Eiger Dreams, 1990). 

Chris McCandless loved the road, the unadorned life, the Tolstoyan call to asceticism. After graduating college, he took off on another of his long destinationless journeys, this time cutting all contact with his family and changing his name to Alex Supertramp. He was a gent of strong opinions, and he shared them with those he met: "You must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life''; "be nomadic.'' Ultimately, in 1992, his terms got him into mortal trouble when he ran up against something—the Alaskan wild—that didn't give a hoot about Supertramp's worldview; his decomposed corpse was found 16 weeks after he entered the bush. Many people felt McCandless was just a hubris-laden jerk with a death wish (he had discarded his map before going into the wild and brought no food but a bag of rice). Krakauer thought not. Admitting an interest that bordered on obsession, he dug deep into McCandless's life. He found a willful, reckless, moody boyhood; an ugly little secret that sundered the relationship between father and son; a moral absolutism that agitated the young man's soul and drove him to extremes; but he was no more a nutcase than other pilgrims. Writing in supple, electric prose, Krakauer tries to make sense of McCandless (while scrupulously avoiding off-the-rack psychoanalysis): his risky behavior and the rites associated with it, his asceticism, his love of wide open spaces, the flights of his soul.

A wonderful page-turner written with humility, immediacy, and great style. Nothing came cheap and easy to McCandless, nor will it to readers of Krakauer's narrative. (4 maps) (First printing of 35,000; author tour)

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1996

ISBN: 0-679-42850-X

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Villard

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1995

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