Hammett bio, two new whodunits, criticism; Hammett: A Life at the Edge, by William F. Nolan. New York: Congdon & Weed. 276 pp. $16.95.; Dashiell Hammett's Secret Agent X-9, by Dashiell Hammett and Alex Raymond. New York: International Polygonics. 225 pp. $9.95.; The Anodyne Necklace, by Martha Grimes. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 250 pp. $14. 95.; Fatal Obsession, by Stephen Greenleaf. New York: Dial Press. 250 pp. $14.95.; The Poetics of Murder, edited by Glenn W. Most and William W. Stowe. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 394 pp. $22.95.
It was Dashiell Hammett who ''took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley, . . .'' who ''gave murder back to the kind of people who commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse,'' according to Raymond Chandler. Chandler also said Hammett ''wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.'' So he did. The proof is in such classics of American detective fiction as ''Red Harvest,'' ''The Maltese Falcon,'' ''The Thin Man,'' and, to a lesser extent, in his other novels and nearly 100 short stories.
Hammett is, in fact, the father of the fictional private eye. The stark realism of his work, says William F. Dolan in Hammett: A Life at the Edge, owes much to the writer's years as a Pinkerton operative, a career which began in 1915 (at $21 a month) and ended in 1922. As an investigator, Hammett was rated ''at the very top.''
Poor health ended Hammett's Pinkerton career and troubled him through the rest of his life. With a wife and child to support, he turned to the less physically demanding profession of writing for magazines. He couldn't make enough money at writing, however, and turned to creating ad copy for a San Francisco jeweler. This was in 1926, at which time, says Dolan, ''Hammett considered himself a retired fiction writer. He might never have produced 'The Maltese Falcon' or any of his other novels had it not been for a man whose name appeared on the Black Mask masthead . . . in November 1926.''
The man was Joseph Thompson Shaw, and during Shaw's reign at Black Mask, a pulp mystery magazine published from 1920 to 1951, Hammett became wildly popular with readers. Shaw urged Hammett to do a novel, and in 1929 ''Red Harvest'' appeared. The rest is history - or, in this case, biography. ''A Life at the Edge'' is unfortunately an apt subtitle for Dolan's biography. Hammett was given to excesses in drinking, relations with women, and gambling. He was generous to a flaw, hence always in need of money, despite the large sums earned as a screenwriter and novelist.
Among the ventures was a turn at writing a comic strip for the King Features Syndicate, for which Hammett was paid $500 a week. The results can be seen in a collection of the cartoons called Dashiell Hammett's Secret Agent X-9, a book that should entertain any Hammett fan.
Hammett's writing career lasted only 10 years - from the mid-1920s to the mid-'30s, when he ran out of steam. In 1942, at age 48, he surprised everyone by enlisting in the Army, and editing his base newspaper in the Aleutians.
In 1951, he refused to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, was charged with contempt, and subsequently served six months in prison. He was blacklisted by Hollywood and harassed by the FBI. He died in 1961 .
''A Life at the Edge'' is the best biography yet written on Hammett. Dolan has researched his subject with great care and has given us the results in eminently readable prose. What more there may be to tell about Sam Spade's creator we are likely to discover in October, when Diane Johnson's biography, produced with the cooperation of Lillian Hellman, with whom Hammett had a romantic alliance from 1930 until his death, is published.
With the appearance of The Anodyne Necklace, it is clear that Martha Grimes has earned a place in the class of female mystery writers now headed by P. D. James, yet stretching back to Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. This latest adventure of Eichard Jury centers on a small village of Littlebourne, where the body of a young woman is found with the fingers on one hand missing.
Grimes has a gift for creating interesting characters, and ''The Anodyne Necklace'' is full of them. The solution to this odd case hinges on understanding a map drawn for the game Wizards & Warlords, played by the habitues of the Anodyne Necklace, a pub in a seedy section of London.
Stephen Greenleaf is perhaps the best young writer of many following in the footsteps of Hammett, Chandler, and Ross McDonald. In Greenleaf's latest (fourth) Marsh Tanner mystery, Fatal Obsession, Tanner returns to his hometown, in Iowa, where he had been a high school hero before leaving to enter college, law school, and eventually law practice, the war in Vietnam, and the business of private detection.
''Fatal Obsession'' opens with the death by hanging of Marsh's cousin, Billy, who, as it happens, was already expected to die from overexposure to Agent Orange. Afterimages of Vietnam abound in the novel. The plot is ordinary, and the ending something of a disappointment, but the writing so evocative and seamless it hardly seems to matter. The vignettes of small-town life seem so extraordinarily accurate as to make Chaldea and its inhabitants palpable.
Among the 20 contributors to The Poetics of Murder are such prominent critics as Frank Kermode, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, Geoffrey H. Hartman, and Umberto Eco. As their intellectual stature suggests, this is a complex and sophisticated anthology of critical essays for the scholarly mystery fan only.