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Published in 1930, this story deals with the rise of organized crime in the United States in which mobsters capitalized on the Prohibition (bill outlawing production and consumption of alcohol). The reader also gets a gritty look at the more sordid side of urban life during the acceleration of industrialization in the larger US cities. The leit motif of alienation also comes to the fore.
Have a look at the references below for more details about the social and economic climate of the day and also for a background sketch of the author (Samuel Dashiell Hammett), who got into quite a bit of trouble over his pro-Communist ideals during the Red Scare era.
Hammett was a professional writer. He had to write for a living. He had been a private detective himself for many years, which explains why he wrote private detective stories and novels. He gave up detective work because of bad health. He needed money. He said that he had heard the story about the fabulous Maltese falcon statuette, more or less as it was related by Gutman to Spade, and thought about writing a novel about it for years before he finally wrote it. I believe it was originally serialized in the Black Mask pulp magazine.
Television was not available to the American public before the end of World War II in 1945. But TV sets were expensive and the programming was mediocre for many years. Before the advent of television, one of the most popular forms of mass entertainment was pulp magazines. They were given that appellation because they were printed on cheap pulp paper and typically only sold for ten or fifteen cents a copy. The writers were poorly paid. Dashiell Hammett was only getting one cent a word during his early days with Black Mask. A 5000-word story would bring him fifty dollars. He had to turn out a lot of copy to make a living. He lived in San Francisco on Geary Street for some years. His apartment rented for fifty dollars a month, so he could get by on about a hundred dollars a month, which would mean selling ten thousand words. All the pulp writers were writing mainly for money. They wrote what they thought their readers wanted to read, which was what the editors told them the readers wanted to read. The readers of pulp magazines were characteristically poorly educated men and women who wanted thrilling stories in language that was easy to understand. Some of the other good writers who started as freelance pulp-fiction authors were Jim Thompson, Cornell Woolrich, and Raymond Chandler. If they were lucky, they might sell a story to Hollywood. Cornell Woolrich complained that his agent never got him more than $5,000 for the movie rights to one of his stories. Woolrich was the author of Rear Window, among others. Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett eventually did quite well in Hollywood. Chandler collaborated with Billy Wilder on the screenplay for Double Indemnity. Hammett's The Maltese Falcon was made into movies three times, but the classic noir adaptation of his novel by John Huston, starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet is infinitely superior to the other two.
Dashiell Hammett had no great message to deliver to his readers in The Maltese Falcon. He was writing an interesting yarn with interesting figures and turning out copy as fast as he could in order to pay his bills. Although he did not have any formal training as an author, he had a good ear for the English language, and he wrote excellent dialogue. He has been compared to Ernest Hemingway as a masterful writer of dialogue. The final chapters of The Maltese Falcon are full of examples of his hard-boiled American vernacular.
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