The Maltese Falcon

by Dashiell Hammett

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Critical Essay on The Maltese Falcon

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1668

In The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett has produced a detective novel format that is so compelling that it has been done and redone over and over. It is a pattern that any moviegoer or television watcher is familiar with by now: The detective, Sam Spade, finds himself pulled into a web of intrigue surrounding a mysterious, valuable object that brings three murders to his doorstep. Readers follow the story because they want to know who committed the killings and where the valuable black bird is. Keeping them interested is the work that a mystery story is supposed to do. What elevates this book from being a good read to being literature, though, is the interest that Hammett shows in Sam Spade’s personality and the way that he provokes readers to wonder about it. In the end, the mystery of the man turns out to be more compelling than any questions about who did what, with what, and how.

Who is Sam Spade? At the end of The Maltese Falcon, readers find out that he is not the person that he has pretended to be all along. He proves to be a man driven by a sense of honor, which he has kept hidden throughout, a man who has known the answer to who killed his partner, Miles Archer, but who has kept on pursuing clues anyway, allowing himself to be seduced by Archer’s killer, but not so far taken in by love that he is willing to let the woman he loves escape justice. He is a man with an agenda so deeply buried under his placid demeanor that it is very likely that he himself is not aware of it.

In addition to Spade’s probable lack of selfawareness, Hammett makes his personality even more difficult to understand with the way that he tells this story. The third-person narrative voice is distant, never allowing access to what Spade really thinks. Readers never enter into his mind. Although Spade’s job is to observe the other characters and surmise from their behaviors what they are thinking, he applies no such scrutiny to his own actions. Without access to his thoughts, readers find themselves, at the end of the book, knowing the least about the character that they thought they knew the best.

Deception is a tool in the detective’s arsenal. Without access to his thoughts, readers can be deceived just as much as the characters that Spade is trying to fool. For instance, when Spade walks out of the fat man’s suite at the end of chapter 11, shouting and threatening, readers have no way of knowing that he has not actually lost his cool until the next chapter when he sighs in relief that his posturing has gone so well. He shows similar temper with Lieutenant Dundy and District Attorney Bryan, using the pretense of emotion to leverage the situation. Over the course of the novel, he hides from Brigid O’Shaughnessy what might be the most important fact of all: that he knows, and probably has known from the moment he surveyed the crime scene, that she and only she could have killed Miles Archer.

Of course, this detective story would hardly be worth following through to the end if readers knew early on that Spade had identified O’Shaughnessy as the murderer of his partner and that all of her whispery pleas for his devotion and trust were wasted in the air. It is good for the story to have Spade withhold his knowledge. In the context of the story, though, he never adequately answers why it was better...

(This entire section contains 1668 words.)

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to hold this knowledge back than to tell it to the police and thereby wash his hands of the whole affair. He says that it is his duty to turn in the killer of his partner, and that is what Spade eventually does, but Hammett does not make clear whether that is Spade’s intention all along or something that he settles on at the last minute. Spade’s ambivalence is understandable—he is, after all, a man in love—but the fact that even he might not know his own intentions combines with Hammett’s narrative distance to make Spade the darkest mystery in the book.

The best way to separate Spade’s true self from the various bluffs that he goes through to track down the Maltese falcon is to look at how he is with characters who are not even involved with the affair of the black bird. There are few people in the book who do not relate to the search for the falcon, which makes them exceptional when they do appear.

In order of least importance, the first of these characters would be the theater manager who hires Spade in a quick, one-paragraph scene in chapter 16. Spade is in the thick of his search for the falcon, and, in fact, comes into possession of the object of everyone’s murderous interests later in that same chapter. But he takes time to listen to the man and accept a retainer from him. This small touch is seldom noticed. The man is so insignificant to the story that Hammett does not even bother to describe him, beyond referring to him as “swart.” Still, his significance to understanding Spade’s character is great. In taking the man’s retainer, Spade makes it clear that, this deeply into the case, with the police pressuring him with jail and the fat man offering him unimaginable riches, he does not expect his life to change much. It might even be unconscious, but Spade behaves as if he sees neither wealth nor jail in his immediate future. This affirms his behavior at the end, when he tells O’Shaughnessy that he would still have turned her in if the falcon had been real, and he had collected his ten thousand dollars.

A more significant indicator of Spade’s true psychological state is the story that he tells O’Shaughnessy in chapter 7 about the man named Flitcraft, who, having been nearly hit by a falling girder, abandoned his wife and infant child, traveling the world for a few years before settling down to almost the exact same situation that he left. The story is mostly notable because of its irrelevance to what is going on in Spade’s life at the time that he chooses to tell it: He is falling in love and on the verge of finding out about the mystery of a lifetime. It takes a strong man to rein himself in and put the events surrounding him into perspective. Literary critics can debate whether the moral of the story is fatalism (that a man is going to be what his destiny dictates, despite moments of awareness) or freedom (that Flitcraft, shaken by the awareness of death, realized that his former life had been just fine). The important thing is that Spade focuses on this story when he feels the falcon intrigue drawing him in. “I don’t think he even knew he had settled back naturally into the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma,” Spade explains to O’Shaughnessy, who is barely listening and certainly not ascribing any importance to this weird little tale. “But that’s the part of it I always liked.” As with the episode of the swart man, it seems that, beyond wealth or love, what Spade expects of himself is consistency.

And that is why, in the end, he resigns himself to accepting Iva Archer as a part of his life. The wife of his murdered partner, Iva appears to be involved in the falcon case in some way, but she really is not. She is an independent entity, a constant factor that was in Spade’s life before the case started and one that will be there when it is over. When Spade finds out that Iva was not home on the night Miles was shot, he has her story checked out in a roundabout way, having her tell her alibi to his lawyer, who in turn, unethically, tells it to Spade. He still does not seem convinced, but expresses satisfaction that the police will believe it. But Spade’s own skepticism of Iva’s story is suspicious: If he is not convinced that Iva was where she said she was when Miles was killed, then why is he so certain of Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s guilt? Or, conversely, if Spade knows that O’Shaughnessy killed his partner, then why does he show such interest in Iva’s whereabouts? Throughout the story, Iva jealously stakes out Spade’s apartment and his office, and he tries his best to avoid her. Apparently, though, he is curious about what she does when she is not around to bother him. The man of conviction loses the money and the girl—this is the price of having convictions—but he ends up in the arms of a woman that he claims to detest. This might just be bad luck, but it could also be the fate that Spade, consciously or unconsciously, wants. He might realize that, whatever he does to escape, he, like Flitcraft, will end up with Iva or someone like her.

If Hammett had given more direct access to Spade’s thoughts, the story would have been less interesting, and the lead character would certainly have been less compelling. Sam Spade seems to be a complex, interesting man trying to hold onto a simple, uninteresting life, even as he stands in the middle of a hurricane of love and intrigue. Readers do not know what he is thinking; Spade himself might not even know, in any depth, what motivates him. The important thing is that he is so well realized in what he says and does that readers can recognize his fate and accept that it is right for him.

Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on The Maltese Falcon, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

The Style and Ideology of The Maltese Falcon

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6975

The Maltese Falcon is our greatest detective novel, but its status as such is the product of a continuing cultural consensus. When published it announced a new style, one adopted widely, which we, viewing it in retrospect, have come to accept as the style of the period. In other words, The Maltese Falcon is a classic not only because of its literary quality and response to its age, but because when we look back on it we recognize the origins of what we have become. Alternate genealogies are always available, but we do not see ourselves in The Benson Murder Case or Little Caesar or even in Dashiell Hammett’s other work as we do in this novel.

Recently the style of The Maltese Falcon has been questioned, a sign that the consensus is no longer solid. James Guetti, in his instructive 1982 essay in Raritan, “Aggressive Reading: Detective Fiction and Realistic Narrative,” examined the prose of Hammett, Chandler and Macdonald from the paired perspectives of information theory and reader response criticism. He found Hammett’s style, especially his descriptions of characters, “provoking, even irritating” because they are a “collection of visual fragments.”

We may know from information theory that the information present in any situation is proportional to the “resistance” of that situation. We may feel “informed” while reading Hammett’s prose, then, because all these separate items, all these details, compose a resistance to our reading efforts, and our response to that resistance is to increase those efforts. We try harder and harder to smooth the story out, to break it down to something hardier and neater than this list of details, to reduce it in volume by somehow changing its state from a mixture of separate things to a more homogeneous solution.

Guetti does not ask questions about readers of 1929 or their horizon of reading expectations. Given his approach, that is perfectly acceptable. He is not interested in questions of genre or the way in which emerging and declining styles mediate one another. He is a “modern reader,” whose critique suggests that we no longer read Hammett in a context that makes his style meaningful. Albeit indirectly, Guetti does the signal service of suggesting a discussion of the function of this style, and whether it has a relation to history.

The passage that most provokes and irritates Guetti is Hammett’s introduction of the villain, Casper Gutman:

The fat man was flabbily fat with bulbous pink cheeks and lips and chins and neck, with a great soft egg of a belly that was all his torso, and pendant cones for arms and legs. As he advanced to meet Spade all his bulbs rose and shook and fell separately with each step, in the manner of clustered soap-bubbles not yet released from the pipe through which they had been blown. His eyes, made small by fat puffs around them, were dark and sleek. Dark ringlets thinly covered his broad scalp. He wore a black cutaway coat, black vest, black satin Ascot tie holding a pinkish pearl, striped grey worsted trousers, and patent leather shoes.

Guetti’s critique is out of sympathy: “It repeats itself dissonantly and insistently. . . . Its sentences lose their grammar and become lists . . . Its concern with explanatory clarity becomes overextended and boring. . . . And it is so intent upon its variation of detail that its construction becomes gratingly unvarying.” In Guetti’s estimate, this stylistic debacle exists to challenge the reader, to provide “resistance” to his aggressive drive to solve the mystery. The “mystery,” in this sense, is some withheld feature of plot: who done it.

Surely this is to impute to Hammett, the advertising copywriter, a disinclination to meet his readers on their own terms that would have doomed him to the same obscurity that has claimed S. S. Van Dine. We know that these descriptions were deemed by such literary lighting-rods as Dorothy Parker to be the essence of Hammett’s modernity. There is little testimony that Hammett was read by readers who placed their wits in competition with his. Unfortunately the cultural conflict that gave The Maltese Falcon its stylistic power has evaporated. A cluster of emerging design values and economic forms found crystallization in this novel, and we forget that it could ever have been otherwise.

From its opening words The Maltese Falcon concerns itself with what I will term the clash of the rough and the smooth in the domain of popular style. These design values are best illustrated by Hammett’s own change from the rumpled, anonymous, fat Continental Op to an art nouveau detective:

Sam Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down—from high flat temples—to a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

As more than one scholar has noted, this is an impossible face. If you attempt to draw it, you have a design of V’s that caricatures a devil. The point of opening the book with this description is that the unusual visual emphases relate the book to socioeconomic change immediately. The whiplash angles of Spade’s face echo the most popular curvilinear motif of Art Nouveau, already familiar to the public visually, whether in the typography of Eugene Grasset and Otto Eckmann, the illustrations of Aubrey Bearsley or the industrial designs of Henri van de Velde and Hector Guimard. Charles Chaplin had already used this V-face on a villain in Easy Street (1917). It is by now well known that these artists and designers were adapting the organic, nature-based forms of Victorian picturesque design to the demands of modern industrial manufacture, which required functionality. They facilitated the coming triumph of Modernism by providing a brief period in which new products, for new ends, made by new processes, were given a hint of reassuring organic familiarity. Hammett, designing a new hero for new readers in a new era, suggests no less for his readers.

Hammett’s opening description tells readers that Sam Spade is not a Victorian detective, not the Continental Op or Philo Vance. Spade is modern, seemingly amoral, but organic and familiar. What will be new is mediated by such conventional descriptions as the “steep-rounded slope of his shoulders [that] made his body seem almost conical—no broader than it was thick—and kept his freshly pressed grey suit from fitting very well.” This appearance, along with his cigarette rolling when upset and occasional animal grunts and nervous sweats, gives Spade the organic familiarity of the past.

The function of representing the nakedly modern falls to his opposite number, Miss Wonderly (Brigid O’Shaughnessy), whose multiple names suggest her indefiniteness.

She was tall and pliantly slender, without angularity anywhere. Her body was erect and high-breasted, her legs long, her hands and feet narrow. She wore two shades of blue that had been selected because of her eyes. The hair curling from under her blue hat was darkly red, her full lips more brightly red. White teeth glistened in the crescent her timid smile made. [emphasis added]

“Without angularity anywhere,” “long,” “narrow,” “pliantly slender,” and attired in red (hair and lips) and two shades of blue: could Brigid’s glistening white teeth complete a pun on the national banner? Miss Wonderly is thoroughly modern: smooth, aerodynamic and painted in primary hues. Just as the newly designed typewriters, automobiles and telephones were sheathed by metal skins, her style is the smooth. Her interior processes—emotions, motives—are not visible. The faring of “Miss Wonderly,” will soon be stripped away to reveal the less modern sounding Brigid O’Shaughnessy, a rough name whose ethnicity is an implicit critique of corrupt urban politics of the 1920s.

The visual styles of Spade and Wonderly are opposed within the first 300 words of The Maltese Falcon. The cultural context of this opposition is next:

The tappity-tap and the thin bell and the muffled whir of Effie Perine’s typewriting came through the closed door. Somewhere in a neighboring office a power-driven machine vibrated dully. On Spade’s desk a limp cigarette smouldered in a brass tray filled with the remains of limp cigarettes. Ragged grey flakes of cigarette-ash dotted the yellow top of the desk and the green blotter and the papers that were there. A buff-curtained window, eight or ten inches open, let in from the court a current of air faintly scented with ammonia. The ashes on the desk twitched and crawled in the current.

The modern workplace is the terrain to be contested. Its portrayal as ammonia-scented and ashdotted dates to the 1890s and Ash Can School painters; its literary rendering, beginning with Stephen Crane and proceeding through the muckraking journalists, became such a convention of the period that Scott Fitzgerald could depend on such a scene’s implicit meaning (the Valley of Ashes) for The Great Gatsby (1925). By 1930 a few details of mechanization and the sensory texture of industrial life were sufficient to evoke the anxiety of technological change in the workplace.

In Spade and Wonderly then, the reader faces two styles of response to this anxiety. Miss Wonderly is completely identified with the stylistic values of the New, the Modern, and therefore to be suspected. Her stammering inarticulateness cues the reader: “Spade smiled and nodded as if he understood her, but pleasantly, as if nothing serious were involved.” With his familiarizing look of the past, Spade wants her to begin “as far back as you can.” Miss Wonderly anxiously questions her own actions—“I shouldn’t have done that, should I?” “That is what he would tell me anyhow, isn’t it?” The reader cannot trust her because, while design designates her as the future, she expresses a fear of the future.

On the other hand, Spade’s guarded way of speaking and showing emotion, in keeping with his visual persona, manifests a concern for survival that reassures the reader. But this guarded quality is really a kind of ideological sleight-of-hand, an elision by which the modern implies (only) those traditional qualities it requires. Spade may not be the most modern character, but he is more modern than others, a realization that comes only after the reader has taken his side and which finally leads to the novel’s endorsement of a new style of behavior.

Spade’s sub rosa modernity is developed by the conventions of description—Guetti’s “reading resistance”—that Hammett employed to set Spade off from the other male characters. There is no chance that the reader will opt for Spade’s partner Miles Archer, for he is a draft horse from the past: “medium height, solidly built, wide in the shoulders, thick in the neck, with a jovial heavy-jawed red face and some grey in his close-trimmed hair.” “His voice was heavy, coarse.” Miles is killed early, by that avatar of the modern, Miss Wonderly. Spade’s ironic “You’ve got brains, yes you have” at the moment he is cuckolding Archer makes clear that he is not Modern enough. Sgt. Tom Polhaus and Lt. Dundy not only belong to the Victorian past but to the same ethnic factionalism implied in Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s name.

The Lieutenant was a compactly built man with a round head under short-cut grizzled hair and a square face behind a short-cut grizzled mustache. A fivedollar gold-piece was pinned to his neck-tie and there was a small elaborate diamond-set secret-society emblem on his lapel.

Dundy’s description is like that of Archer; along with Polhaus and Shilling, they are variations on a type that Hammett sets up as The Sap, to contrast with Spade. The essence of this older Victorian type is the absence of sheathing. They are rough. These characters have an almost chemical reaction to stimulae in terms of the job; Dundy’s eyes fix Spade “in a peculiarly rigid stare, as if their focus were a matter of mechanics, to be changed only by pulling a lever or pressing a button.”

On Miss Wonderly’s side of the stylistic dialectic, the crooks appear, one by one, as progressively more flawed versions of the smooth.

Mr. Joel Cairo was a small-boned dark man of medium height. His hair was black and smooth and very glossy. His features were Levantine. A squarecut ruby, its sides paralleled by four baguette diamonds, gleamed against the deep green of his cravat. His black coat, cut tight to narrow shoulders, flared a little over slightly plump hips. His trousers fitted his round legs more snugly than was the current fashion. The uppers of his patent-leather shoes were hidden by fawn spats. He held a black derby hat in a chamois-gloved hand and came towards Spade with short, mincing, bobbing steps. The fragrance of chypre came with him.

Like Miss Wonderly, Cairo is fashion-conscious and “glossy,” but like Gutman his plumpness and “bobbling” intimates some threat in the smooth. In holding Spade at gunpoint to search his office, Cairo is more overtly duplicitous than Wonderly. But the hidden threat in Cairo and Wonderly is only made stylistically clear by the appearance of Gutman. He is the quintessentially unsmooth smooth character: in his bubbles, ringlets, eggs, pearls and patent leather, he has subdivided his smooth surface until it becomes rough. By reticulating and dispersing smoothness, Hammett found a phenomenal way of making it rough and repulsive, and the sensory impact diffuses to color Cairo and Wonderly. Pure smoothness is not to be trusted. The conventions of characterization limit the appropriate range of smoothness to Spade’s activities.

Of the remaining characters, less description is given. Effie Perine, who helps define the Sap, is a “lanky sunburned girl whose tan dress of thin woolen stuff clung to her with an effect of dampness. Her eyes were brown and playful in a shiny boyish face.” Her visual style, like Spade’s, suggests the mediation by the Victorian of the modern: exterior not completely smooth, but smooth enough, with a self-preserving guarded emotional smoothness.

These descriptions are not intended, then, as a devilish obstacle to the resolution of the mystery, but as ideological bracketing. What we already sense in such repeated details as the “patent leather” shoes of Cairo and Gutman are markers in the “fashion rhetoric” of larger social forces outside the text. “The Fashion text,” as Roland Barthes noted, “represents as it were the authoritative voice of some one who knows all there is behind the jumbled or incomplete appearance of the visible forms.” That such signs should be perceived by Guetti as “resistance,” rather than a path to the solution of the conflict, simply means that the older conflict, now that we live in its outcome, is ceasing to concern us.

The climax of The Maltese Falcon is not the unmasking of the falcon as a fake, but Spade’s revelation that he is turning his client and romantic interest, Miss Wonderly (Brigid O’Shaughnessy) over to the police.

“You didn’t—don’t—l-love me?”

“I think I do,” Spade said. “What of it?” The muscles holding his smile in place stood out like wales. “I’m not Thursby. I’m not Jacoby. I won’t play the sap for you.”

This response suddenly makes clear a complex of stylistic and emotional elements in the novel, which are crystallized in the commonplace of “sap.” Among other things, this invocation subordinates romance to self-discipline, professionalism and class interest. It opens a view of Spade’s character, which had been concealed by his familiar exterior, that now may be seen to accommodate feigning both love and hate. It reveals what is modern about him, which is his interior.

Spade’s list of reasons for not being a sap strikes many readers today as stammeringly inarticulate, as hypocrisy, though it is valued by scholars for updating the “detective code.” In 1930, however, this list was necessary to explain the curious behavior that Spade had exhibited throughout the novel and to illuminate in retrospect his actions—for a good deal of the mystery in this novel is why Spade acts the way he does.

Spade’s list begins with an appeal to the traditional, broad social bonds that typified the undifferentiated members of a 19th century community: “When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it.” But neither partnership nor community have a role in Spade’s life: he is a loner, without wife or coeval. He is emblematic of the emerging structure of society, which Hammett quickly suggests: “Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well when one of your organization gets killed, it’s bad business to let the killer get away. It’s bad all around—bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere.” [emphasis added] This second reason reflects a narrower allegiance to a specific profession and the perception by its members of the world in terms of their class interests: Spade as a small businessman.

The third reason tightens this focus to Spade’s specific profession: “I’m a detective and expecting me to run criminals down and then let them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go.” But in the 19th century the dog did that frequently, when larger interests dictated. Philo Vance did it. So did the Continental Op. However, the new standards imposed by getting a living in a narrow trade preclude the acknowledgement of traditional community ties and emotional bonds, even his feeling for Brigid.

The fourth and following reasons explain the preclusion of emotion in terms of self-preservation: “No matter what I wanted to do now it would be absolutely impossible for me to let you go without having myself dragged to the gallows,” and “I couldn’t be sure you wouldn’t decide to shoot a hole in me some day.” If competition and survival are suggested here—residual elements of social Darwinism—it is because the emerging economic ideology seizes useful elements of the preceding system, such as individualism while dropping elements such as cooperation and charity.

In this enumeration Hammett manages to strip from the previous social model its communal and affective aspects while retaining its laissez-faire emphasis on economic freedom and self-interest. The net result is to establish the primacy of self-interest, which Spade then turns on Brigid’s championing of affective ties. “All we’ve got is the fact that maybe you love me and maybe I love you.” He accuses her of encouraging his affection in order to reap economic gain, as though he were an unwary consumer: “I won’t because all of me wants to—wants to say to hell with the consequences and do it—and because—God damn you—you’ve counted on that with me the same as you counted on that with the others.” These lines perform important ideological work. The commodification of emotion, especially sexuality, was taboo under the old system, because promiscuity undermined the economic unit of the family; but under the new system, its role is not yet clear. The commodification of sexuality seems to threaten the illusion of individual uniqueness necessary to synchronous isolated work. Yet the discovery that sexuality could be managed by serializing its form and denying it an affective content is implicit in Spade’s behavior, for he sleeps with Brigid in order to search her apartment.

The emotional and behavioral model that is Sam Spade defines itself most vehemently in opposition to the “sap.” A word with roots in England of the early 1800s, sap is a short form of “saphead,” which connotes a fool or dupe. Tom Sawyer applied the word to Huck Finn in response to the latter’s anti-romantic hardheadedness in 1884. The image of the human head covered by “the circulating fluid of a plant or animal” is worth pondering. On being “sapped,” a plant or animal is pierced so that its vital fluid runs out: what should be inside comes outside. A “saphead” or “sap” is someone whose fluid inner essence has leaked in unseemly fashion to the exterior. The implied norm against which the epithet works is a contained inner essence and a hard, smooth exterior. But it is not a model that denies fluid inner emotions— anxiety, depression, love. Instead it emphasizes their management.

That the indulgence of emotion results in becoming a “sap,” Hammett leaves no doubt. The first character in the novel identified as a sap is Spade’s partner Miles Archer. Both his cuckolding by Spade and his death at Brigid’s hands can be traced to insufficient self-discipline. Archer can’t see beyond the quick $100 and Miss Wonderly’s trim figure—he’s for the immediate, visceral reward. Not accidentally he is married and that “partnership” undermined. Archer’s petty venality represents the passing economic phase, as Hammett reminds us by describing him with the 19th century conventions of the “jovial heavy-jawed red face” and “solidly built” body. Spade has Archer’s name taken off the door almost immediately, for if Spade were Archer he’d be dead, just as Thursby is dead, both of them “saps.”

To a lesser degree but in more instructive fashion Lt. Dundy, the Irish cop who is Spade’s nemesis, is a sap. Spade defines himself against Dundy by incidents that reflect the latter’s inability to see where his real interests lie. Dundy treats Spade like a criminal for most of the narrative, trying to provoke him with heavy-handed interrogation, unfounded accusations and late night telephone calls. He can’t see that Spade has a professional value to him, and vice-versa. The conventions of his description—“compactly built,” and “square face,” but particularly the five dollar gold-piece tie-clasp and “small elaborate diamond-set secret society emblem”—connote an older character model. The last detail identifies him as a lodge member at a time when the Lynds, in their study of Middletown in 1925, tell us that such heterogeneous forms of male organization had given way to associations of lawyers, doctors and businessmen, even in Muncie, Indiana. These new associations were highly competitive, professionally oriented class interest groups. They replaced the geographically based lodges such as the Elks and Moose. But Dundy, who always shakes hands “ceremoniously,” and whose admonitions—“I’ve warned you your foot was going to slip one of these days”— echo religious imagery that dates to Jonathan Edwards, still belongs to this world.

When Dundy finds Spade with Brigid and Cairo and threatens to haul them to jail, Spade says, “Don’t be a sap, Dundy.” Immediately Dundy hits Spade: he understands the charge and responds in the old mode of physical violence. Unlike Polhaus, who perceives his common professional interests with Spade and passes information to him with an easy informality, Dundy subscribes to the grand conspiracy theories of District Attorney Bryan, which preclude effective professional cooperation. Hammett parodies their conception of crime, which links the falcon to “Dixie Monahan” and Chicago gamblers (by which readers are to understand “Al Capone.”) This conception of problems is passe, failing to perceive that professional interests are narrow and solution-oriented.

All of Gutman’s gang are saps: conventions and commonplaces aided Hammett in detailing them. Wilmer is undersized, homosexual and profane. Cairo is a dandy and homosexual. Gutman is fat and abuses his daughter. Brigid is a serial seductress and gold-digger. Their common pursuit of the falcon, emblem of materiality, defines them as anachronistic adventurers from a previous economic life. They represent a prodigality that once astonished Hammett in the person of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, so the rotund Gutman is their natural leader. They live well and dress lavishly, without holding jobs, without any explained funding. After they have the falcon, they propose to leave their “legal difficulties” to Spade. Hammett’s personal fondness of prodigality glints along Gutman’s “cherub” smile when he proposes to seek the falcon in Constantinople, but he enforces thematic closure by having the betrayed Wilmer kill Gutman minutes later. “He ought to have expected that,” remarks Spade, who understands that romantic treasure-hunting is a thing of the past.

Spade, with his efficiency apartment, Murphy bed, store bought products, office and secretary, epitomizes the emerging economy. Compared to the Continental Op, Spade’s lack of heterogeneous social contact is clear. In Red Harvest, the Op had Mickey Linehan and Dick Foley for partners, on the street he met Bill Quint and Dinah Brand, and he achieved camaraderie with Reno Starkey among the crooks. When Sam Spade walks down the street, he is likely to be shadowed. He trusts no one. Yet he knows at least as many people, has more useful professional contacts than his predecessor. Among his acquaintances of instrument value are hotel detectives, cabbies, policemen and lawyers. But there is no geographic or community relation among these economic isolets, no sense of polity. The same technological forces that provide them with Murphy beds and billboards require that their work be narrowly and efficiently organized. Like the urban office-worker of the late ’20s, Spade’s life has the spheres of self-preservation and work, which for him are synonymous. He has no informal or community ties: no church, no lodge, no hobbies, no affective ties or neighbors.

This lack does not glare because it is depicted as difficult to achieve: it is emotional smoothness. When Effie Perine sees Spade perplexed by Brigid, Iva and Dandy, she cues the reader to its demands: “You always think you know what you’re doing, but you’re too slick for your own good. . . .” This slickness—mental and emotional “smoothness”— and its cost are the center of the novel’s ideological innovation. Even the most alluring models of exterior smoothness, such as Brigid, may be simply examples of sheathing that disguise the anachronistic values of the old economic model. True smoothness is interior as well as exterior: its manifestations are coolness, skepticism, feigned comprehension, suspension of judgement, self interest, observation, the ability to wait, a sense of humor.

The genuinely smooth is not easy. Hammett’s descriptions of Spade’s “growl,” the “wales” that stand out in his cheeks, his “harsh gutteral voice,” and the “dreamy” quality of his face when he is about to hit someone—all these are meant to testify to its difficulty and to offer the reader a model sufficiently complex to be worthy of emulation. One suspects that Dorothy Parker, among others, took Sam Spade to heart because he embodied not only the new behavior of the emergent economy but its cost as well. He can be hurt, but he polices his wound. Spade contains himself without a price: both Iva and Effie ask if he killed Archer, and Spade’s flinch reveals his pain at their presumptions.

As Hammett indicated by titling an important chapter “Three Women,” Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Effie Perine and Iva Archer serve, in one sense, as the fates. They ask questions, represent mysteries, and possess occult powers: Brigid can solve the mystery of the falcon, Iva can implicate or exonerate Spade in her husband’s murder, and Spade depends particularly on Effie’s “female intuition.” As we shall see, however, Hammett folded into this essentially archetypal presentation of women a number of potent psychological and socioeconomic analogues, the upshot of which will be (especially in Raymond Chandler) to suggest the emergent economic ideology in a female foil to the main female character.

Psychoanalytic analyses of The Maltese Falcon have pointed out that the deaths of Archer and Thursby leave Spade in possession of two women formerly attached to other men. They postulate that he is subject to a “fear of Oedipal victory” with regard to Effie Perine, his “desexualized daytime mother.” But the imperative of ideology to manage popular energies consumes just such shibboliths and taboos relentlessly. Effie is purposely just like Mom; sublimated Oedipal victories were old news in popular narrative by 1930. All the ideological hints in the novel point to Effie as Spade’s appropriate partner. Only her disappointment that he does not believe in Romance—a concession to sentiment—keeps them apart in the final scene.

As potential spouses these three women represent the choices faced by Hammett’s male readership. Effie is the girl next door: lanky, sunburned, playful, boyish, earthy and candid—echo of Sinclair Lewis’ widely praised Leora Tozer of Arrowsmith (1925). Her “de-sexualization” must be understood against the prevailing convention of popular literature in the early ’20s that a woman serving a man in the workplace would be sexually exploited. From this vantage Effie appears to be empowered by Hammett. She becomes a kind of office wife—an economic partner who is competent, efficient, honest and a team player. Spade’s physical intimacies with her seem as uncharged as a small child’s bedtime hug in the kitchen. When the falcon comes into their possession, they are not mesmerized like Gutman but quickly dispose of it. The only male/female unit in the novel, they function ideologically as the Nuclear Family.

The falcon must be exposed as a fake in the presence of Brigid, to show that she lacks potential as a spouse. Her “gold-digger” profligacy and Bad Girl sexual liberality (overt depiction of unmarried sex was still at the edge of the popular reading horizon in 1930) must be exposed as a threat to social stability. Brigid’s name, like that of Gabrielle Leggett in Hammett’s preceding novel, The Dain Curse, suggests a foreignness, and when, early on, she calls herself Miss Le Blanc, she suggests her archetype Blanchfleur, who nearly diverted Sir Galahad from his guest for the grail. “I always lie,” Brigid confesses. “Can I buy you with my body?” she asks.

A type since the Middle Ages, the femme fatale evolved from the succubus. Heroes of the early grail romances, such as Percival, were afflicted by succubi. Disguised as sensual, alluring maidens, these hags misled the hero when he was lost or tempted him to sexual intercourse while he slept. At consummation he forfeited his soul to them. The succubi developed distinct physical features that became conventions of several genres. Pointed ears, sharp teeth, angular noses and cheekbones, epilepsy and other seizures have traditionally been the means by which readers recognized the succubus and her threat to the hero. In Red Harvest, Hammett confined the succubus to a cameo appearance in Myrtle Jennison. In The Dain Curse, the Op cures Gabrielle Dain, the heroine, of her archetype; even her ears and teeth are rounded off. In Brigid’s smoothness, sheathing, and green, his personal sign for lust, Hammett definitively articulated the femme fatale that had fascinated him since “The Girl with the Silver Eyes” (1924). In subsequent work, variations on Effie would dominate.

Iva Archer falls between Effie and Brigid, though closer to the latter, with whom she shares some characteristics. Like Myrtle Jennison, Iva has cheated on her husband: both serve as cautionary examples of the wages of sin. As with Myrtle, Spade’s inclination is to pull up the covers over Iva and to say “thank you” when he is done. Yet Iva is his lot when the novel ends. She is so shallow emotionally as to be non-human; she makes Spade shiver, as if having Iva was to become Archer, to cuckhold oneself.

Clearly it would be better to have Effie. Only the rogue male in Spade refuses to face the logic that makes Effie Perine his domestic partner. Only Effie has a mother, a brother, a family of any sort; only Effie can speak to Spade candidly about a woman’s “shape” or about his business. She uses his chair when he is absent, she massages his temples in a scene which by its isolation and physical contact is provocative. If she offers Spade no knowledge about himself, none of the allure of death that Brigid represented, that is well lost. Effie is the economic truth about marriage: mundanity and the sacrifice of romance to expediency and money-getting. That Effie should reprimand Spade for his unromantic behavior in the end is not only a brilliant concession to sentiment, but a recognition that women transmit the core beliefs of society. Men adjust, bear new tensions, fit themselves to a changing social grid, but the affective tradition in 1930 is still passed down through mothers.

By far the most influential interpretation of The Maltese Falcon in Robert Edenbaum’s brilliant perception that “in the last pages of the novel . . . the reader (and Brigid O’Shaughnessy) discovers that he (and she) has been duped all along.” Spade, says Edenbaum, has known from the moment he saw Archer’s body that Brigid was the murderer. “Spade himself then is the one person who holds the central piece of information. . . . he is the one person who knows everything, for Brigid does not know that he knows. And though Spade is no murderer, Brigid O’Shaughnessy is his victim.” Edenbaum concludes that “Brigid . . . is the manipulated, the deceived, the unpredictable, finally, in a very real sense, the victim.” In his view, the course of the action is “the demolition of sentiment” through the “all but passionless figure of Spade.”

The key to this interpretation is Edenbaum’s insight that Spade is a kind of “daemonic agent,” that is, a vehicle of allegoric impulse. Those who try to redeem the sentimental level of the action have missed the point, says Edenbaum. They say “You’re right, you’re right, but couldn’t you better have been wrong?” This is the point made via Effie Perine in the novel’s last scene. But the point about Spade is that allegorically he could not have been wrong: neither the form of allegory nor his revelation of his knowledge in the climactic scene permit the reassumption of values that have been sloughed.

Edenbaum’s feat of reading the novel against the grain of sentiment (and the 1943 film version) also sheds a revealing light on Brigid. Untouched by affection herself, she counts on Spade’s automatic response to her pretended helplessness, her sexual attractiveness, her love. She “falls back on a set of conventions that she has discarded in her own life, but which she naively assumes still hold for others,” writes Edenbaum. Spade, seen from the retrospect of the finale, reveals how a “modern” self-interest identifies sentiment, encompasses it and reveals it to be an unsophisticated form of emotional manipulation for economic ends.

This retrospective understanding of the novel’s action may finally be more important than its allegoric impulse. In allegory, by and large, meaning develops concurrently with the reading experience; nothing is withheld from the reader by the central character. If the reader knows, with Spade in chapter two, who killed Miles Archer, only then is he reading allegory. If he does not, if he is lulled by sentiment, if he fills in Spade’s growls and Brigid’s stammerings with affective meaning, then the retrospect shows he has been insufficiently suspicious of the motives of others, less than comprehensive in his canvassing of the data. There is no way to press the novel, as Guetti implies, and wrest the “mystery” from its resisting details.

The form of the novel, like the economic ideology it endorses, is an instance of “instrumentality.” I mean this word exactly in the sense popularized by John Dewey and his pragmatist fellows in the teens and twenties: that the truth of ideas or forms (in this case persons might be included) is determined by their success in solving actual problems. Retrospectivity has great instrument value for ideological suggestion in narrative. And the ideology of The Maltese Falcon completes the circuit by endorsing instrumentalism.

No better example of this reinforcement (and the limits of an allegoric reading) exists than the “Flitcraft parable.” Just before he sleeps with Brigid, Spade tells her a long story about a real estate agent who leaves his office for lunch one noon and never returns. He passes a construction site and “a beam or something fell eight or ten stories down and smacked the sidewalk alongside him.” Suddenly Flitcraft’s eyes opened: “He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.” Life was not a “clean, orderly same, responsible affair,” and he saw rather that “men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them.” According to Spade, “What disturbed him was the discovery that in sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step and not into step, with life. He said he knew before he had gone twenty feet from the fallen beam that he would never know peace again until he had adjusted himself to this new glimpse of life . . . Life could be ended for him at random by a falling beam: he would change his life at random by simply going away.”

This naturalistic conception of the universe leads Flitcraft to wander for several years, eventually marrying a woman similar to his first wife and replicating his old circumstances. Spade “always liked” this part of the story: “I don’t think he even knew he had settled back naturally into the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma . . . He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”

In Robert Edenbaum’s reading, Spade subscribes to the “Dreiserian” nature of Flitcraft’s insight. Beams do not continue to fall in Flitcraft’s world, but they do in Spade’s. Edenbaum turns to the analogue between Spade recounting her husband’s sea-change to the first Mrs. Flitcraft and Spade’s recounting the story to Brigid. “If Brigid were acute enough—or less trammelled by conventional sentiment—she would see in the long, apparently pointless story that her appeals to Spade’s sense of honor, his nobility, his integrity, and finally, his love, will not and cannot work . . . Brigid—totally unscrupulous, a murderess—should understand rather better than Mrs. Flitcraft, the bourgeois housewife. But she doesn’t.”

Edenbaum halts here. Since in his view Spade is a daemonic agent, the stories he tells are to be comprehended allegorically in relation to the action. Yet Spade’s ironic appreciation of Flitcraft’s naturalism is plainly evident. In fact, it has a genealogy. Hammett’s first version of Flitcraft was the English character Norman Ashcraft, an Englishman, in the short story “The Golden Horseshoe.” Resenting his wife’s wealth and desiring to prove his independence, Ashcraft migrates to America, leads a scruffy life and is in a sense reincarnated in the criminal Ed Bohannon, who kills him and assumes his identity. A strong and attractive aspect this story is the fantasy of an enjoyably disreputable life available beyond the marital confines. It is also a variation of the theme of the prodigal son that fascinated Hammett. Ashcraft sheds his wife’s stultifying fortune, just as Flitcraft walks out on $200,000, “a new Packard, and the rest of the appurtenances of successful American living.” But Ashcraft dies: prodigal sons always fail for Hammett.

The urban setting of the Flitcraft parable, given short shrift in a strictly allegoric reading, is also important. Increasingly safer than rural life, as well as materially better, it was perceived by recently urbanized readers as straitened by its greater organization. The threat of death by falling beams is a post hoc justification of the original departure, from the small town and traditional family, just as Flitcraft’s second family in idealized solution. If one can go away and come back to the same family as before, one has both affective ties and complete independence. The Prodigal Son lives! He reads the universe as material, organized by chance, and decides on a course of prodigality. But Hammett knew that prodigals were never welcomed back by stay-at-home brothers.

Hence the instrumental lesson of the Flitcraft parable. The universe may not be rational—random events like the falling beam and prodigal son punctuate life—but rationality is the best instrument with which to go hunting. The chance event drives men away from cover and adaptive or habitual responses for only a short time. Prodigal sons return.

Were Brigid at all perceptive about the Flitcraft parable, as Edenbaum says, she would see that each time she tries to deceive him, Spade becomes more sure of her guilt. But Spade never even reveals his suspicion to the reader, and his certainty is withheld until it can most emphatically endorse the instrument value of narrow self-interest and professional class consciousness by the brothers of prodigal sons, which is how Hammett defines his readers. Retrospect allows them this ironic appreciation, which allegory does not.

It also performs another service that allegory cannot, which is to distinguish “useful” instrumentality from the false and “serial” version that characterizes Brigid. Ideology selects existing features for their appropriateness to the emerging system, in this case the credit economy. Just as Art Nouveau mediated the arrival of modernism in art and design, popular acceptance of the credit economy was smoothed by ideological mediations in popular art. Instrumentalism provides a way of assessing credit, sentiment, smoothness—so as to preclude the kind of misevaluation that leads one to speculate in stocks or to invest in Ponzi pyramids, much less quest after Maltese falcons or trust Brigid O’Shaughnessys. The resistance that James Guetti, and no doubt others, perceive in a text that we had presumed a stylistic forebear, may mean that we are so far along the road of a subsequent socio-economic phase—that of the service economy—that our genealogy requires redefinition.

Source: William Marling, “The Style and Ideology of The Maltese Falcon,” in Proteus, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1989, pp. 42–50.

Dashiell Hammett

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1549

The actual writing in The Maltese Falcon shows the author’s determination to move out of the pulp world into that of the genuine novelist. It is not only the guns pumping lead that have gone. Slang is used less liberally, and attention is paid to the need for continuity and to the development of character. In the lectures on the mystery story that he gave years later in New York, Hammett stressed, as one student remembered, “that tempo is the vital thing in fiction, that you’ve got to keep things moving, and that character can be drawn within the action.” It was such drawing of character within the action, including action within the dialogue, that Hammett achieved here and in later novels to a degree approached among his contemporaries only by Hemingway. The good, hard phrases found in the earlier work were not sacrificed. Typical of them are the lawyer Sid Wise’s remark, “You don’t cash many checks for strangers, do you, Sammy?” and Spade’s caustic observation to Gutman after he has disarmed Wilmer and given Wilmer’s pistols to the fat man, “A crippled newsie took them away from him, but I made him give them back.” It is true that the style has its limitations, or rather, that there are some clichés of the pulp story that Hammett never discarded. Spade does too much “wolfish grinning,” and his eyes are “hard and cold,” “narrow and sultry,” “wary and dull,” “angry,” “bulging,” “brooding”—all within a few pages.

The book’s effectiveness rests in part in the realization, fuller and richer than in the short stories, of San Francisco’s streets and scenes. Spade waits for Cairo outside the Geary Theater on Suffer Street, sits with Effie Perine in Julius’s Castle on Telegraph Hill, has an apartment on Post Street. Joe Gores, author of the novel Hammett, has traced many of the places exactly, for instance identifying Brigid’s room at “the Coronet on California Street” as the Yerba Buena Apartments on Sutter Street.

There remains the question of symbolism. The falcon itself is often seen by critics as symbolic, because what should be a jeweled bird proves to be no more than black enamel coating lead. It is “a suitable symbol for illusory wealth” in “a novel about the destructive power of greed,” Richard Layman says, and William F. Nolan thinks that “the falcon is a symbol for the falseness and illusions of life itself.” Ross Macdonald suggested that the falcon might symbolize the lost cultures of the Mediterranean past “which have become inaccessible to Spade and his generation,” or might even stand for the Holy Ghost itself. The absence of spiritual beliefs in Spade, he wrote, “seem[s] to me to make his story tragedy, if there is such a thing as dead-pan tragedy.” This surely goes much too far. Almost any crime story can be said to express the destructive power of something or other, whether it be greed, sex, hatred, or envy. We are all aware of the deadliness of the Seven Deadly Sins. And although it may be that a true awareness of past, or indeed present, culture is absent in a man like Sam Spade, his solution can surely be called tragic only if Spade, even momentarily, suffers tragically. But the detective’s emotional struggle is merely between the romantic feeling of his love for Brigid and the practical need to offer the police a murderer, and there is no doubt that the practical approach is going to win. One can read symbols into anything, but there is no indication that the falcon was chosen for any reason other than to provide a good focal point for a thriller, a focal point which also had a basis in fact.

There is more reason for attributing symbolism to the Flitcraft story, told by Spade to Brigid as one of his detective experiences. Flitcraft is a Tacoma real estate executive who has a pleasant house, a new car, and “the rest of the appurtenances of successful American living,” including a wife and two sons. He goes out to lunch one day and never comes back. Spade finds Flitcraft five, years later, living in the Northwest with another wife, and a baby son—the same kind of woman and the same kind of life. What had happened to him? On the way out to lunch Flitcraft was almost hit by a beam falling from an office building in course of construction.

The near escape from injury and possible death showed him that the life he was living, “a clean, orderly, sane, responsible affair,” was really a foolish one. “Life could be ended for him at random by a falling beam: he would change his life at random by simply going away.” So he leaves, but after a couple of years he duplicates his previous existence. “That’s the part of it I always liked,” Spade says. “He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”

The Flitcraft story is extremely well told. It has nothing to do with the plot, but we, like Brigid, find it absorbingly interesting. The records of any police department will confirm that its basic elements are not unusual. Apparently happy husbands or wives often disappear from their pleasant homes to lead a new life, generally with another woman or man but sometimes for no obvious logical reason. In fiction Georges Simenon has played several variations on the theme, as in The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By, in which Kees Popinga suddenly realizes that the pattern of his respectable life is a fraud, abandons his wife and family, becomes a multiple murderer, and ends up in an asylum. There he starts to write an article, “The Truth about the Kees Popinga Case,” but fails to complete it because, as he says to his doctor, “Really, there isn’t any truth about it, is there?” Undoubtedly Hammett meant something by inserting this enigmatic story into a tale to which it bears no obvious relation, but what?

Most of the interpretations are based on the falling beam and what it made Flitcraft understand about the universe. “The randomness of the universe is Spade’s vision throughout,” says Robert I. Edenbaum. Layman points out that the nineteenth-century American philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce (Flitcraft changes his name to Charles Pierce) wrote about random occurrence. John Cawelti suggests that Hammett’s vision is of an irrational cosmos in which all the rules can be overturned in a moment, and William Ruehlmann that the tale is meant to show that Spade, like Flitcraft, is incapable of emotional involvement and so is truly committed to nobody. All the characters in the book, according to this view, are counterfeits: Brigid a counterfeit innocent, Gutman a counterfeit sage, Wilmer a counterfeit tough guy. “Worst of all is Spade, a counterfeit hero.” George J. Thompson, one of the most intelligent critics of Hammett’s work, says that “the meaning of the Flitcraft parable is that if we can see clearly enough to understand that external reality is unstable and unpredictable, then one must be ready to react to its ironies. . . . To some extent the Flitcraft parable, like the Maltese falcon, stands for the absurdity of assuming that the external world is necessarily stable.”

There are other theories, all based on Hammett’s belief in the random nature of life. Without expressing positive disagreement with any of them, it should perhaps be added that with Hammett the most straightforward, least high-flown view of the Flitcraft story is likely to be the one he had in mind. It is possible that he was not contemplating a grand application of the story to all human existence but merely a personal reference to his own career to date. In that case the key sentence is “What disturbed him was the discovery that in sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step, and not into step, with life.” Up to the time of his departure from San Francisco, Hammett had done his best to order his life sensibly, without much success. For several years afterward, however, he made no attempt to order it at all.

Whether or not this idea has any validity, those prone to fine-spun theories about Flitcraft in particular and Hammett’s work in general should remember his response to Lillian Hellman on an occasion when he had killed a snapping turtle, first by rifle shot and then by an ax blow almost severing the head, only to find that the dead turtle had moved down the garden in the night. When Hammett started to cut away one leg from the shell, the other leg moved. Was the turtle alive or dead? Hellman rang the New York Zoological Society and was told that it was scientifically dead but that the society was not equipped to give a theological opinion.

“Then how does one define life?” Hellman asked Hammett. “Lilly, I’m too old for that stuff,” he replied.

He would always have been too old for some of the theories put forward about the meaning of Flitcraft.

Source: Julian Symons, “The Maltese Falcon,” in Dashiell Hammett, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1985, pp. 66–72.

The Falcon and the Key

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3791

In his 1934 introduction to The Maltese Falcon Dashiell Hammett wrote:

If this book had been written with the help of an outline or notes or even a clearly defined plot-idea in my head I might now be able to say how it came to be written and why it took the shape it did, but all I can remember about its invention is that somewhere I had read of the peculiar rental agreement between Charles V and the Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, that in a short story called “The Whosis Kid” I had failed to make the most of a situation I liked, that in another called “The Gutting of Couffignal” I had been equally fortunate with an equally promising denouement, and that I thought I might have better luck with these two failures if I combined them with the Maltese lease in a longer story.

The hallmark of the best modern American novelists has been an ability to recognize in the themes and plots of early work those conflicts that can sustain even greater elaboration. Call it a sieving or a critical eye, in 1928 Dashiell Hammett had it.

Hammett had written two novels in two years, had rewritten his old stories, and he claimed to have 250,000 words—an amount equal to half of the Bible—available for publication. This work was at once recapitulative and boldly innovative. In 1925, before he wrote “The Big Knockover” and “$106,000 Blood Money” to train up to the length of the novel, he had written two stories that were good but not quite finished. In “The Whosis Kid” most of the action took place in the apartment of Inés Almad, an alluring foreigner who fled with the loot from a robbery. The Op was in her apartment when three former partners showed up. The “situation” that Hammett liked was the “apartment drama,” in which the rising action was heightened by the physically confining space and mutual hostility of the characters. The tension built extraordinarily well while it was submerged in the dialogue, but the climax had been an ineffectual spate of bullets.

Hammett had known the advantage of tempting the hero’s code with a beautiful woman since “The Girl with the Silver Eyes.” But in “The Gutting of Couffignal” he attempted to increase the tension by making the Op’s surrender circumstantially plausible. It failed. The Op seemed so uninvolved with the temptress that he sacrificed little in adhering to his code. In The Maltese Falcon Hammett clarified the archetypal traits of this femme fatale—beauty, mutability duplicity—and involved the detective with her romantically from the first to the last chapter.

The Maltese Falcon is also given impetus by Hammett’s elaborations on “classical” mystery formulas and by the reality/illusion debate that he explored in The Dain Curse. The use of violence to move the plot is much reduced; there are three murders, only one of them onstage. There are, however, ten important deceptions and reversals, and the detective himself is a deceiver, whose code takes shape from a parable about self-deception at the novel’s core.

The detective is a new incarnation. In The Dain Curse Hammett seemed stumped about his hero’s evolution and fell back on pure chivalric code. The hero of The Maltese Falcon recurs to the hero of Red Harvest in some traits, but in a more important way, as Hammett noted, he is an idealized vision of independence and self-reliance:

Spade had no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been and what quite a few of them in their cockier moments thought they approached. For your private detective does not—or did not ten years ago when he was my colleague—want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander or client.

Sam Spade is the hero who looks “rather pleasantly like a blond satan.” From jaw to widow’s peak, his face repeats a V motif. He is slope-shouldered, compact, and muscular, so that mien and physique together suggest an extroverted, physical man. His partner Miles Archer is a similar but less intelligent type. Their office is managed by Effie Perrine, a “lanky, sunburned girl” with a “shiny boyish face,” who became Perry Mason’s Della Street and every private eye’s secretary afterward.

The action begins when Effie escorts into Spade’s office a Miss Wonderly, really Brigid O’Shaughnessy: she asks Spade to rescue her sister from a hoodlum named Floyd Thursby, and she advances $200 for the work. Miles Archer walks in, sizes her up, and volunteers to do the job.

A 2 a.m. call from the police informs Spade that Archer has been murdered. He taxis to the scene but declines to examine the body or answer questions. “I’ll bury my dead,” he says. He asks Effie to call Iva Archer with the news. At home Spade is questioned by policemen Polhaus and Dundy, who have learned that he was cuckolding his partner, which makes him a suspect. They also reveal that Thursby is dead.

Miss Wonderly disappears, and has changed her name to Miss LeBlanc when Spade finds her. She only confesses her real name in the first “apartment scene,” a histrionic meld of confessions, tears, and innuendos that does not fool Spade. But he agrees to help her recover a “valuable object” for an additional $500.

At the office the next day Effie ushers in Joel Cairo, who also gives Spade a retainer to help him find the object, which he identifies as the Maltese falcon. He pulls a gun on Spade, is disarmed, but repeats the trick as he leaves—all to no avail. After his contact with Cairo a man begins to shadow Spade, necessitating elaborate dodges. Brigid will not divulge details about the quest for the falcon, but, like Princess Zhukovski, offers to buy Spade’s trust with her body. This disturbs Spade, who arranges a meeting between Cairo and Brigid.

Waiting for Cairo, Spade tells Brigid the story of Flitcraft. It seems like idle conversation, but it is a parable explaining, indeed forecasting, Spade’s behavior. When Cairo arrives, he trades sexual insults with Brigid (he is a homosexual) until Dundy and Polhaus appear again. The police threaten to jail all three. Only Spade’s brilliant improvisation, in which he persuades Cairo to play a part, prevents their arrest. Dundy again accuses Spade of Archer’s murder, and punches him on the way out. Drawing on his deepest reserve of discipline, Spade refrains from striking back, but after the police and Cairo leave, he flies into a rage. The scene ends with Spade and Brigid on the way to bed, but readers are warned away from assuming paramount importance for the love interest. Spade wakes before Brigid the next morning, and searches her apartment while she sleeps.

With a clue garnered the previous night, Spade finds the man shadowing him and says he wants to see “G.” When he returns to his office, Spade has a call from G., who is Casper Gutman. The shadow, a “gunsel” or kept-boy named Wilmer, escorts Spade to see Gutman. Like Effie, Wilmer has passed into the archetypal library of the detective novel. From Gutman Spade learns more about the “black bird” and those who seek it; he pretends to possess it and gives Gutman a dead-line for his participation in its recovery.

Fearing that Gutman will kill her, Brigid goes into hiding. When Spade applies himself to tracking her down, he can find no clues except a newspaper clipping about a ship due from Hong Kong called La Paloma. When Gutman calls and opts in, Spade learns the entire story of the falcon. Hammett embellished the history of the icon’s later travels, but the data on the Hospitalers of Saint John is basically correct. They were a religious order in the Middle Ages, located on the Isle of Rhodes, and charged with providing lodging and care for pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem. They built up tremendous wealth between 1300 and the early 1500s, but were displaced by Suleiman the Magnificent and his Turkish armies in 1523. They wandered until 1530, when they gained the patronage of Charles V, who gave them four islands, including Malta (not three, as Gutman says). The actual Hospitalers were displeased by the barren islands and savage inhabitants, but delighted that the only required tribute was “simple presentation of a yearly falcon on All-Saints Day.” Initially they gave a live bird, but as their wealth grew they substituted jewel-encrusted statuettes.

At the finish of the history, Spade passes out— Gutman had drugged him. On waking, he finds Gutman, Wilmer, and Cairo gone. When he goes to search Cairo’s room, he finds another clue leading to La Paloma, but is prevented from pursuing it by appointments with Polhaus and the district attorney. Then as Spade and Effie discuss the day’s events at the office, Captain Jacobi of La Paloma enters, carrying the wrapped falcon, and falls dead at their feet.

Spade instructs Effie to phone the police while he hides the falcon. He tries to contact Gutman, but the criminals conspire to send him on a wild goose chase. Since Brigid participates in the deception, Spade is suspicious when she appears outside his door that evening. Gutman, Cairo, and Wilmer are waiting upstairs; Spade knows he is trapped. He accepts $10,000 to deliver the falcon, but insists that a “fall-guy” be given to the police for the murders. First he suggests Wilmer, then Cairo. Gutman suggests Brigid and attempts to impeach her by suggesting that she stole one of the ten $1,000 bills that she has been holding for Spade. When this ploy fails, Gutman and Cairo agree to make Wilmer the fall guy.

As dawn approaches, Spade phones Effie to retrieve and deliver the falcon. Unwrapped, it turns out to be a worthless imitation; Gutman asks for his money back, and Spade gives him all but $1,000, which he later turns over to the police. The irrepressible Gutman decides to continue his search, and Cairo joins him. As they leave Spade alerts Polhaus and Dundy, but before the criminals can be arrested Wilmer kills Gutman.

Spade urges Brigid to tell all before the police arrive. She confesses to conspiring to get the falcon, but denies involvement in Archer’s murder. However all of the evidence points to her. “Miles hadn’t many brains,” says Spade, “. . . but he’d have gone up [the alley] with you, angel, if he was sure nobody else was up there.” When Brigid confesses, she attempts to force Spade’s loyalty by invoking their love. In the stunning climax, Spade says that “maybe you love me and maybe I love you” but that he “won’t play the sap for her.” He enumerates seven reasons why, then turns her over to Polhaus and Dundy.

The novel ends on a melancholic note the next morning as Effie Perrine will have nothing to do with Spade because he has betrayed the cause of true love. Iva Archer waits outside, however, and when Effie ushers her in Spade shudders and seems resigned to an emotional wasteland.

The Importance of Flitcraft The rightness of the ending, as well as an understanding of Spade’s earlier actions, rest on the story that he told about Flitcraft. Occurring before he goes to bed with Brigid, the parable’s structural position is like that of the dream sequence in Red Harvest or the fight with the ghost in The Dain Curse. But thematically it is better integrated. Flitcraft is a reinterpretation of the character Norman Ashcraft in “The Golden Horseshoe,” and like other aspects of the novel he has become immortal— there are probability statistics in the insurance business known as Flitcraft Reports. In Hammett’s first treatment, Ashcraft resents his wife’s wealth and wants to prove that he can support himself independently. He moves to America, leads a scruffy life, and is in a sense reincarnated in the criminal Ed Bohannon. The fantasy of an enjoyably disreputable life available beyond the marital confines is a strong and attractive aspect of the earlier story.

In Hammett’s reworking, Flitcraft is a real estate agent who leaves his office for lunch one noon and never returns. He passes a construction site and “a beam or something fell eight or ten stories down and smacked the sidewalk alongside him.” Suddenly Flitcraft’s eyes opened: “He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.” Life was not a “clean, orderly, sane, responsible affair,” he saw rather that “men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them.” According to Spade, “What disturbed him was the discovery that in sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step and not into step, with life. He said he knew before he had gone twenty feet from the fallen beam that he would never know peace again until he had adjusted himself to this new glimpse of life . . . Life could be ended for him at random by a falling beam: he would change his life at random by simply going away.”

This naturalistic conception of the universe leads Flitcraft to wander for several years, eventually marrying a woman similar to his first wife and replicating his old circumstances. Spade “always liked” this part of the story, which shows the primacy of the adaptive response: “I don’t think he even knew he had settled back naturally into the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma. . . . He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”

The moral, which Brigid misses, lies at the level of Spade’s ironic appreciation rather than in Flitcraft’s insight into the nature of the universe. The universe may be material and organized by chance, one may die any second; but such an insight, as Flitcraft demonstrates, does not mean that randomness constitutes a way of life. Man is above all adaptive and habitual, traits not only rationally intelligible but rather predictable. Information keeps crystallizing in a chaotic universe. Spade, for example, has found Flitcraft. Herein lies the basic irony that pervades Spade’s outlook: the world may not operate rationally, but rationality is the best net with which to go hunting. The chance event—the falling beam—drives men away from cover and adaptive responses for a short time.

In telling Brigid this, Spade is explaining that his code is primary for him. It is the best adaptive response to the world in which he lives, a version of James Wright’s advice to Hammett back in 1915. Spade has seen the potency of chance events—and love might be numbered among them—and he understands their relation to the patterns. Were Brigid at all perceptive about this story, she would see that each time she deceives him, Spade becomes more certain of her pattern. His “wild and unpredictable monkey-wrenches” repeatedly unseat her from romantic postures and reveal her fundamental avarice. But the uncomprehending Brigid only says “How perfectly fascinating” at the end of the Flitcraft story.

The Moral Climate of The Maltese Falcon Hammett’s most extraordinary fictional feat is the embodiment of this world view in the character of Sam Spade. Spade is a continuation of that interest, which Hammett expressed in The Dain Curse, in the deceptions that veil reality. Reality is Spade’s psychological fulcrum, and yet he is more perfectly than the Op a knight of the detective code. But readers perceive him as flawed, cruel, and human, rather than as the holder of God-like powers.

Hammett masks his character’s power primarily by eliminating the first-person narrator, whose intimacy with the reader revealed his minor infidelities to the code and implied that he discussed his cases, a weakness alien to the entirely private personality of Spade. With a third-person point of view, the hero’s person becomes more distant and independent. In addition, Hammett made Spade’s code an innovation on the generic standard, a new version that allows him not only deception, but the pleasures of adultery and the rewards of betrayal. Such variations are the key mode of creativity in popular literature, allowing readers to enjoy generically or conventionally forbidden desires.

Yet Spade’s code is only one of three moral climates. The reader is exposed equally to the worlds of the police and of the criminals, whose ethos Brigid shares. The exact distinctions between these worlds are blurred, and the reality/illusion question makes it clear that both Spade and the reader function, when they judge, on the basis of only some of the facts. More facts may be produced by “heaving a wild and unpredictable monkeywrench into the works,” as Spade says, but he never forgets that his facts, once linked, are still a construction of reality. As he tells his lawyer of Iva Archer’s alibi, “I don’t believe it or disbelieve it. . . . I don’t know a damned thing about it.” What counts, he explains, is that it seems “to click with most of the known facts” and “ought to hold.” Spade operates on this view of reality for the entire novel; at its end he refuses to tell Brigid whether he would have acted differently had the falcon been real and they shared its wealth. Hammett had a bit of fun articulating Spade’s world view: when Flitcraft assumes his new existence, he changes his name to Charles Pierce, a variation on Charles Sanders Peirce, the nineteenthcentury American philosopher who wrote extensively about chance and probability. Peirce also identified a logical process between induction and deduction called “abduction,” in which the investigator accepts an event as having happened, then imagines the state of affairs that produced the situation. Its common use in detective fiction, as Hammett saw, reinforced the role of the detective as the author of reality.

The method is apropos, since the characters with whom Spade must deal live according to illusions. Most of them are greedy; they want the falcon. For some, such as Gutman, this greed is overlain with the illusion of personal quest. Others, such as Brigid, believe the world is made up of “saps,” who can be manipulated by their sexual desires. All such illusions are, on the allegoric level, symbolic sins. Those of Joel Cairo, the effete criminal, and Wilmer, the homosexual gunman, have become less obvious as their characters became more stereotyped. Rhea Gutman’s self-abuse is a continuation of Gabrielle Leggett’s morbid self-destruction. Miles Archer, with his sartorial self-confidence, represents a traditional pride, while Effie Perrine, with her romantic conception of love, is a more simply deluded, but nonetheless erring, variation on a generic norm.

Reasoning as he does by abduction, Spade maintains his personal distance on these characters until he abduces (authors) their formative situations. He understands that everyone lives in his illusions, so he believes nothing, trusts no one, and rejects real emotional contact. Critic Bernard Schopen points out that Gutman, Cairo, Wilmer and Brigid are moral primitives, who “create those illusions which assist them in their rapacious pursuits.” Most affective are those of Brigid, whose continual lies and deceptions readers excuse as long as she feigns inchoate personal emotions— claiming thus an emotional sanctity. This implication of mystery makes her character far more interesting than those of Jeanne Delano in “The Girl with the Silver Eyes” or the princess in “The Gutting of Couffignal.” Yet it is the reader, not Spade, that she seduces with her sentiments. Spade merely speaks the lingua franca of each character’s illusion and avoids the fate of “saps” like Archer and Thursby, who are induced to participate.

The abductive method is complicated by those properties of the formal mystery that Hammett appropriated for the structure of The Maltese Falcon. He had been experimenting with analytic detection in The Dain Curse, and was fond of the trail of false clues that he used in “The Tenth Clew.” The ten deceptions in The Maltese Falcon, according to George Thompson, begin with Brigid’s representation of herself as Miss Wonderly and her portrayal of Thursby as Archer’s killer. The third is Dundy’s opinion that Spade murdered Archer, a view supported by new information about Spade’s affair with Iva and testimony from Archer’s brother. If the reader is suspicious of Spade at this point, Hammett has successfully involved him in the skeptical world view that is Spade’s modus operandi, and the point of the Flitcraft parable. The fourth deception is Brigid’s story connecting herself and Thursby to the falcon, for she says that she is the victim of the latter’s greed. Later, the implication in her disappearance is that she has become the victim of foul play. The sixth deception occurs when she calls Spade for help, the seventh when the police theorize that Thursby’s death is the result of underworld warfare. The wild goose chase to Burlingame is the eighth false clue, and the ninth is the $1,000 bill that Gutman palms in the final showdown. That the falcon itself is a worthless phony is the tenth and paramount deception. It suddenly illuminates the moral and spiritual emptiness of the co-conspirators, and ironically belittles their quest. It also links the nine previous deceptions in one paramount symbol of the three plot elements—the investigation of Archer’s death, the mystery of the falcon, and the romance between Spade and Brigid.

The Flitcraft parable itself shines through the ten plot deceptions to illuminate the grail/quest structure in a new light. When the grail is found to be worthless, the implication is that the emotion Brigid generates is a “falling beam,” discredited by her greed. But it is also true that while they seek it, the grail holds Spade and Brigid together. It represents the emptiness of sentimental emotion, but its pursuit is, paradoxically, an adaptive response, a confirming, stabilizing influence in Western society. But it no longer provides a “solution.” Like so many American writers of the late twenties, Hammett sees continual emotional improvisation as the only answer. The fact that Flitcraft’s life is Hammett’s personal meditation on what he himself should do next makes the symbol extraordinarily compelling.

Source: William Marling, “The Falcon and the Key,” in Dashiell Hammett, Twayne Publishers, 1983, pp. 70–78.

Hammett’s Black Bird

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3248

Recalling the San Francisco of Hammett, and The Maltese Falcon, veteran columnist Herb Caen vividly described the gritty atmosphere of this foghaunted northern California city: “The Hall of Justice was dirty and reeked of evil. The criminal lawyers were young and hungry and used every shyster trick . . . The City Hall, the D.A. and the cops ran the town as though they owned it, and they did. Hookers worked upstairs, not on the street; there were hundreds, maybe thousands, most of them named Sally. The two biggest abortion mills—one on Market the other on Fillmore—were so well-known they might as well have had neon signs. You could play roulette in the Marina, roll craps on O’Farrell, play poker on Mason, get rolled at 4 A.M. in a bar on Eddy, and wake up at noon in a Turk Street hotel with a girl whose name you never knew or cared to know. . . . San Francisco was a Sam Spade city.”

And Sam Spade, the satan-faced private eye, was Dashiell Hammett’s man—the cool, untrickable lone sleuth who stood between the law and lawbreakers, despised by both, respected by both, who could deal from the top or bottom of the deck, as occasion demanded, who grinned at loaded guns and told politicians and cops to go to hell, who bluffed, cracked wise, bedded his women, and handled his booze, who called San Francisco “my burg,” and knew every hood in it, a man of cynical humor, direct action and a man, above all else, who followed the ritual code of his profession.

“When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it,” he says, after his agency co-partner, Miles Archer, is gunned down in the fog. What he does about it, and to whom, forms the backbone of Hammett’s most famous novel, the prototype of a thousand others, the book which in the very act of remaking its field transcends it. Many critics have called it the finest crime novel ever written; certainly it is one of the half-dozen best, a classic which The New Republic (in a 1930 review) cited for its “absolute distinction of real art.”

Editor Joseph Shaw, reading the 65,000-word manuscript in 1929 as a five-part serial, enthused to his readers: “In all of my experience I have never encountered a story as intense, as gripping or as powerful as this one . . . It is a magnificent piece of writing. With all the earnestness of which I am capable, I tell you not to miss it.”

The Maltese Falcon is remarkable in many respects. Aside from a bit of scuffling and a punch or two, all of the violence takes place offstage; the four killings are done “out of range,” and we are shown the effects of murder rather than its execution, what its factual existence does to the men and women who share in it. Hammett gives us implied violence; guns are drawn and flourished, never fired; threats are made, tempers flare, accusations and cross-accusations abound—but Hammett keeps the tension taut as a stretched wire without ever resorting to overt violence. This is all the more fascinating in a book which most readers recall as “full of action and death.” (Jacobi, the doomed ship’s captain staggers into Sam’s office and dies there, but he has been shot elsewhere; his ship has burned beyond our vision; we are shown only the end result of what has been done to him.) There is the constant, immediate feeling that, at any given moment, the scene will literally explode into bullets and blood, but Hammett resists the temptation, and suspense is therefore greatly intensified. Even at the climax, when one expects the usual shootout we are given only conversation—crackling, menace-laden conversation, laced with double and triple meaning—designed to do the job we have come to expect from overt violence. When the fat man, Gutman, is finally killed by one of his own gang we learn this as it is reported to Spade—just as we learned of the deaths of Archer and Thursby. And Spade, a man of violence, uses only his personality, his shrewdness, to hold the game in check. (Admittedly, in the course of the book, he disarms two of Gutman’s hoods, but casually and with no fuss. Unlike the Op, he does not carry a gun, use a gun. Yet, always there is the feeling that he would use it—if he had to—as casually as he swats the pistol out of Cairo’s grasp.)

The Maltese Falcon, when closely studied, is basically a series of brilliant dialogues, set in motion and bolstered by offstage events. The book could easily be translated into stage drama, with no more than minor cutting needed for the new form. The sets are all there: Spade’s office, the girl’s apartment, the fat man’s hotel room where the lastact climax is played.

The characters in Falcon are etched so deeply that once encountered they cannot be forgotten: Casper Gutman, the florid fat man seeking the elusive gold-and-jewel-encrusted statuette, who speaks effusively in a “throaty purr” and whose eyes are “dark gleams in ambush behind pink puffs of flesh,” who finds the resourceful Spade a more-thanworthy opponent; red-haired, blue-eyed Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the culmination of Hammett’s good-evil women, the lying temptress who changes identity as often as she changes her old lies for new ones; Joel Cairo, the soft-voiced, perfumed homosexual; Wilmer Cook, the sadistic, baby-faced gunman; and Sam Spade himself, with his V-shaped face and sharp predator’s teeth (“He looked . . . like a blond satan and grinned . . . showing his jaw teeth”).

Effective, too, is Effie Perine, Sam’s secretary—and Lieutenant Dundy and detective Polhaus of Homicide, the coppers who dog Spade closely throughout the narrative. (“I’ve warned you your foot was going to slip one of these days,” Dundy tells the detective. Spade remains unruffled. “It’s a long while since I burst out crying because policemen didn’t like me.”)

The author had real people in mind when he created these characters (as he so often did with his detective fiction): “I followed Gutman’s original in Washington,” stated Hammett, “and I never remember shadowing a man who bored me so much. He was not after a jeweled falcon, of course; but he was suspected of being a German spy. Brigid was based, in part, on a woman who came in to Pinkerton’s to hire an operative to discharge her housekeeper. [And, although Hammett didn’t say so, she was also patterned on the advertising artist he’d shared an office with in San Francisco, Peggy O’Toole.] I worked with Dundy’s prototype in a North Carolina railroad yard. The Cairo character I picked up on a forgery charge in 1920. Effie, the good girl, once asked me to go into the narcotic smuggling business with her in San Diego. Wilmer, the gunman was picked up in Stockton, California, a neat small smooth-faced quiet boy of perhaps twenty-one. He was serenely proud of the name the papers gave him—The Midget Bandit. He’d robbed a Stockton filling station the previous week—and had been annoyed by the description the station proprietor had given of him and by the proprietor’s statement of what he would do to that little runt if he ever laid eyes on him again. So he’d stolen a car and returned to stick the guy up again and see what he wanted to do about it. That’s when we nabbed him.”

Hammett’s detective, in this novel, bears his own first name, Samuel, but the author denied autobiographical intent, declaring that “Spade had no original,” that he was “idealized . . . in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I’ve worked with would like to have been.” The average detective, stated Hammett, cares nothing for the Sherlock Holmes image: “He wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with.”

Hammett used several disguised San Francisco hotels in the course of the novel. Casper Gutman lives at the St. Mark, “a combination of the St. Francis and the Mark Hopkins.” Cairo lives at the Belvedere, which was “based on the Bellevue.” Hammett’s cross-and-double-cross scene writing reached its apex with the hotel room sequence wherein Sam tells Gutman that they must rig a “fall guy” for the police to pin all the murders on. He suggests the boy, Wilmer, and although Gutman is shocked (“I feel towards Wilmer just exactly as if he were my own son”) the fat man considers the idea. Meanwhile, Spade offers to make Cairo the fall guy, and when the little man protests and says, “Suppose we give them . . . Miss O’Shaughnessy,” Spade agrees that if “she could be rigged” he’s willing to discuss that idea. She is horrified—and the boy is finally chosen. This entire sequence, in which Spade plays off one member of the gang against another, weakening all of them, sowing mistrust and hatred, is Hammett at his most masterful; his control is superb, and the scene could not be improved upon.

At Tony’s Bar in New York, a few years after the book was published, Hammett told James Thurber that Falcon had been influenced by Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove. “In both novels,” related Thurber, “a fabulous fortune—jewels in Falcon, inherited millions in Dove—shapes the destinies of the disenchanted central characters, and James’ designing woman, Kate Croy, like Hammett’s pistol-packing Brigid O’Shaughnessy, loses her lover in a Renunciation Scene.”

The late W. Somerset Maugham, who basically admired Hammett’s work, found Spade to be “. . . a nasty bit of goods . . . an unscrupulous rogue and a heartless crook. . . . There is little to choose between him and the criminals he is dealing with.”

Yet this is precisely the character Spade wants to project to Gutman; it is imperative that the fat man think him capable of anything; he must play villain to defeat a villain. Later he says, to Brigid, “Don’t be too sure I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be. That kind of reputation [makes it] easier to deal with the enemy.”

Actually, Spade wears many masks throughout the book—pretending to go along with the girl although he knows she killed Archer; stringing the police; working himself into a false rage for Gutman’s benefit—and as each mask is removed a new one appears; total honesty is a luxury Sam cannot afford. The masks must remain in place. (“Everybody has something to conceal,” he says.)

It would be a mistake to judge Spade as “unscrupulous” and “heartless.” In the climactic sequence in which he finally turns Brigid over to the police he reveals the emotions of a man whose heart is with the woman, but whose code forbids his accepting her. Spade knows that he cannot continue to function if he breaks his personal code and goes off with Brigid—even while he admits that Miles Archer was “a louse” and that the agency is better off without him. Sam can sleep with Iva, the dead man’s wife; he can bed down his secretary (“. . . his hand on her hip . . . ‘Don’t touch me now—not now.’”) and he can spend the night with Brigid, but he must never make a permanent alliance with any of them, the good or the evil. He must remain, like the Op, a free lance for hire. He may love Brigid (“I think I do”) but he cannot trust love any more than he can trust the girl herself (“I am a liar,” she tells him, “I have always been a liar”). Spade refuses to “play the sap” for her, giving her all the code reasons for turning her in, then admits that after she’s jailed “I’ll have some rotten nights.” Finally, emotionally, he tells her he won’t let her go free “because all of me wants to—wants to say to hell with the consequences and do it—and because- God damn you—you’ve counted on that with me the same as you counted on that with the others.”

This is not Maugham’s heartless crook; this is a shaken man fully aware that emotion can destroy him if he lets it. Spade ultimately rejects Brigid, “sends her over,” with the outwardly cruel and cynical line (which may have helped deceive Mr. Maugham): “You’re an angel . . . [and] if they hang you I’ll always remember you.” Spade meant it literally.

But if not a villain neither was Sam Spade a hero. In fact, Hammett was presenting a new breed of antihero, a man whose rigid personal code is placed above that of the society he inhabits. He becomes, in effect, the individual lawmaker, a danger to any society. And Spade is a dangerous man, capable of using the corruption around him, admitting that “most things in San Francisco can be bought or taken.”

In the midst of the case Spade tells Brigid a long, seemingly irrelevant story she does not understand, about a man named Flitcraft who left his wife and family suddenly one day, starting a whole new life—all because, while walking along the street, he had narrowly missed being killed by a falling beam, and “he felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.” Spade is telling the girl, in parable, that life is a series of falling beams and that some of us find out about them and some don’t. He is telling Brigid, in effect, not to be surprised when one hits her—as it finally does. Spade lives longer because he knows the beams are falling, and is watching for them.

Ceremony helps hold Sam’s world together. He follows a stylized pattern in handling small details (the rolling of a cigarette, the ritual handshake, etc.) so that he may deal creatively with larger ones. Order within disorder. Mysticism mixed with hard practicality. Yet no more mysterious than Hemingway’s war veteran (and Spade is a veteran of many wars) ceremoniously fishing on the Big Two- Hearted River. It is pertinent to note that in his magazine-to-book revisions Hammett substituted “They shook hands ceremoniously” for “They shook hands with marked formality.” This same calming ceremony is present in the way Spade dresses, ransacks an apartment, disarms a gunman.

Novelist Kenneth Millar sees in the search for the jeweled falcon “a fable of modern man. . . . The black bird is hollow, worthless. The reality behind appearances is a treacherous vacuum. . . . The bird’s lack of value implies Hammett’s final comment on the inadequacy and superficiality of Spade’s life and ours. If only his bitterly inarticulate struggle for selfrealization were itself more fully realized . . . Sam Spade could have been a great indigenous tragic figure. . . . I think The Maltese Falcon, with its astonishing imaginative energy persisting undiminished after more than a third of a century, is tragedy of a new kind, deadpan tragedy.”

Critic Allen Eyles termed it “a study of a group of people affected by the weakness of greed, realized with a force and a psychological aptness that gives it a moral purpose.”

Hammett’s involved blood history of the falcon, as told to Spade by Gutman, was partially— as with the characters themselves—based on fact. The author stated that “somewhere I had read of the peculiar rental agreement between Charles V and the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem.” He refers to the agreement of 1530 between the Order and Emperor Charles V, under which, as “rent” for the island of Malta (then under Spanish rule), they would pay Charles an annual tribute of a single falcon. One of the birds they gave, according to Hammett’s account, was “a glorious golden falcon encrusted from head to foot with the finest jewels in their coffers.” It moves from country to country down the years, leaving a trail of death and theft and deceit, until Gutman goes after it some seventeen years before the story opens. It is against this highly romantic background that Hammett plays out what editor Shaw called his “saga of a private detective.”

That the bird is a worthless fake when Gutman finally gets it is no real surprise to Spade. He never believed in it anyhow; men who live in seedy apartments and work out of seedy office buildings may dream of fabled riches, but they know such riches will not be seen in their lifetime. Gutman is crushed (by the falling beam), but Spade is safe and free to continue as before, lonely, embittered, but able to function on a realistic level. He still has his job. He’s been “through it all before” and expects to go through it again.

In 1929, when Hammett wrote Falcon, rather strong editorial censorship existed in the popular magazines. When Hammett’s serial arrived Shaw checked it carefully. Sex came first. Brigid’s line, “I’m not ashamed to be naked before you,” was dropped, as was a line from Cairo directed to her regarding a boy she had failed to sleep with. (“The one you couldn’t make.”) A damn or a hell was permitted, but outright swearing or foul language was not. (Hammett got around this neatly, losing none of the intended impact. “The boy spoke two words, the first a short guttural verb, the second ‘you.’”) Hammett’s line from Spade, “How long have you been off the gooseberry lay, son?” was changed to “How long have you been off the lay?” since Shaw was certain Hammett had something dark in mind. Actually, “the gooseberry lay” was crook slang for stealing wash from a clothesline!

However, Shaw did not touch the line “Keep that gunsel away from me . . .” because he assumed the word “gunsel” meant gunman. He was wrong. It was a homosexual term, meaning “a kept boy.” Yet, to this day, mystery writers continue to misuse it, following Shaw’s line of thought as to its origin.

Homosexuality in general was not censored nearly as much as heterosexuality in those early pulp days. In the book version, when Spade questions a house detective about Joel Cairo, the man answers with a leer, “Oh, that one.” The original magazine version was bolder in the detective’s reply, “Oh, her!”

Another interesting Hammett magazine-tobook change, having nothing to do with censorship but dealing with clarity, consisted of his switching “You’ll want to sleep if you’ve been in the grease all night” to “You’ll want to sleep if you’ve been standing up under a police storm all night.” Hammett was always working to improve his writing for hard-cover publication.

The Maltese Falcon became an immediate best-seller (surpassed only by The Thin Man in overall sales through the years). In Falcon’s first decade and a half the book saw two dozen hardcover printings in three separate editions. Fifteen of these printings were issued out of Modern Library.

With the successful publication of Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, and now with The Maltese Falcon, Samuel Dashiell Hammett had achieved a major critical and financial breakthrough.

Source: William F. Nolan, “Hammett’s Black Bird,” in Dashiell Hammett: A Casebook, McNally & Loftin, 1969, pp. 56–65.


Critical Overview