The Maltese Falcon
The Maltese FalconIntroduction
Topics For Further Study
Compare & Contrast
What Do I Read Next?
Readers who have never picked up Dashiell Hammett's 1930 detective novel The Maltese Falcon nor viewed the classic 1941 film adaptation, which follows the novel practically word-for-word, might feel a strong sense of familiarity when they first encounter the story. In this book, Hammett invented the hardboiled private eye genre, introducing many of the elements that readers have come to expect from detective stories: the mysterious, alluring woman whose love may be a trap; the search for an exotic icon that people are willing to kill for; the detective who plays on both sides of the law to find the truth, but who ultimately is driven by a strong moral code; and enough gunplay and beatings to make readers share the detective's sense of danger. Throughout the decades, countless writers have copied Hammett's themes and motifs, seldom able to come anywhere near his near-perfect blend of cynicism and excitement.
Hammett is considered one of those rare writers whose critical esteem has exceeded the small genre in which he wrote. A former detective himself, he wrote about the business with a sharp eye for procedural details, but he also showed a knack for engaging dialogue and understanding of the depths of the human soul. In his lifetime Hammett was considered an excellent detective writer, producing five novels, over eighty short stories, and numerous scripts for Hollywood and radio. Today he is respected as one of America's most important and original authors.
Born in 1894 in Saint Mary's County, Maryland, Samuel Dashiell Hammett grew up in Philadelphia and then Baltimore. He attended the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, dropping out at age fourteen to help his family financially. That led to a series of positions, including store clerk, newsboy, machine operator, and stevedore. Eventually, he became an operative for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, a nationwide franchise.
Hammett served as an ambulance clerk during World War I. During the war, he contracted influenza, which affected his health for the rest of his life. Returning to civilian life, he settled in San Francisco, the city that has become associated with him through his works. Hammett married Josephine Dolan, a nurse he met while recuperating, in 1921. From 1922 to 1926, most of his living was made writing copy for advertisements. He also worked part-time for the Pinkerton agency, when his health allowed.
His first short story was published in 1923. After that, he published detective stories regularly. His first novel, Red Harvest, was published in 1929, followed by The Dain Curse that same year, and The Maltese Falcon the year after. In all, he wrote only a handful of novels, concentrating his efforts on short stories and screenplays. The residual payments from radio and film spin-offs of The Maltese Falcon and his 1934 novel The Thin Man supported him financially.
In the mid-1930s, Hammett began an affair with famed playwright Lillian Hellman, who was to be his true love for the rest of his life. He divorced Josephine in 1937. He became active in the Communist party in the 1930s, when many other writers did. During World War II, Hammett, despite failing health and severe alcoholism, served as a sergeant in the Aleutian Islands, editing an army newspaper.
When he returned home after the war, his health was ruined, his writing was infrequent, and he was subject to persecution by the country's growing anti-Communist sentiment. In 1951, Hammett went to prison for five months when he refused to testify in a trial against four Communists charged with conspiracy. He was blacklisted and unable to sell his works; in addition, the Internal Revenue Service attached his income to collect back taxes owed. After his release, he taught in New York at the Jefferson School of Social Science. Hammett died of lung cancer in 1961.
Chapter 1: Spade & Archer
The Maltese Falcon begins when a beautiful woman, who gives her name as "Miss Wonderly," comes into the Spade & Archer Detective Agency and who wants to have a man named Floyd Thursby followed. Miles Archer, one of the partners in the firm, agrees with a lecherous grin to help Miss Wonderly personally.
Chapter 2: Death in the Fog
Sam Spade is phoned in the middle of the night and told that Miles Archer has been shot dead. He goes to the scene of the crime and then phones his secretary, Effie Perine, and tells her to break the news to Archer's widow, Iva. When he returns to his apartment, he is met by two policemen, who ask if he knows anything about the death of Archer or the subsequent shooting of Thursby.
Chapter 3: Three Women
When Spade arrives at his office the next morning, Iva Archer is there. They are having an affair. Effie later tells him that Iva had been out when Effie arrived at her house in the middle of the night. Spade goes to Miss Wonderly's hotel, only to find her gone. There is a message from her when he returns to the office, telling him to come to a different hotel, where she is registered under the name "Leblanc."
Chapter 4: The Black Bird
At her hotel, Spade finds out that she is neither Wonderly nor Leblanc, but Brigid O'Shaughnessy. She acts frightened and begs Spade to help her. She admits to having been untruthful and says she met Thursby in Hong Kong and counted on him for protection against enemies who might try to kill her.
After stopping at his attorney's office to ask how far he can go in refusing to answer the police's questions, Spade returns to his office. There he meets Joel Cairo, who offers him five thousand dollars to find a statue of a bird. Before leaving, Cairo draws a gun to make Spade sit still while he searches the office.
Chapter 5: The Levantine
Spade takes the pistol from Cairo, knocks him unconscious, and then searches his pockets. When Cairo comes to, he asserts that he is still willing to pay five thousand dollars for the statue. When Spade returns his belongings, Cairo aims the gun at him again and proceeds to search the office.
- The first screen adaptation of The Maltese Falcon was the film Dangerous Female (1931). It was directed by Roy Del Ruth and stars Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade and Bebe Daniels as "Ruth Wonderly."
- Another adaptation was made in 1936, as Satan Met a Lady. Starring Bette Davis and Warren William, this version gives Dashiell Hammett credit for his novel but alters the characters and situations: In it, detective Ted Shayne is hired by Valerie Purvis to locate a ram's horn covered with precious jewels. It was directed by William Dieterle and is available on videocassette from Warner Home Video.
- The 1941 film of The Maltese Falcon is one of the most influential Hollywood movies ever made, defining the detective picture for generations to come. It is noted for its close adherence to Hammett's original dialogue, its near-perfect casting, and for being the first film in legendary director John Houston's long and distinguished career. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Elisha Cook Jr., the film is available on DVD and VHS from Warner.
- The 1974 film The Black Bird parodied the The Maltese Falcon, presenting the son of Sam Spade, who has inherited his father's detective agency and set out on his own quest for the Maltese falcon. The film stars George Segal, Lee Patrick, and Elisha Cook Jr. (from the 1941 version), and was directed by David Giler. It is available on videocassette from Columbia/Tristar.
- In the 1982 film Hammett, directed by Wim Wenders and produced by Francis Ford Copella, the author becomes involved in investigating the disappearance of a cabaret singer. This fictional story is based in fact and recreates the world in which Hammett lived and traveled. Frederick Forrest plays Hammett. It is available on VHS from Warner.
Chapter 6: The Undersized Shadow
That night, Spade goes to the Geary Theatre, having noted earlier that Cairo had tickets to the show there. He sees a young man following them. He sees the same youth later, on his way to meet Brigid, and loses him. When he mentions having met Cairo, she says that she must talk to him, but not at her place. They take a cab to Spade's apartment for a meeting. When they arrive, Iva Archer is waiting there for Spade and is upset when he says she cannot come upstairs with him.
Chapter 7: G in the Air
Waiting for Cairo, Spade tells Brigid a story about a man who, after a near-death experience, abandoned his wife and children, only to eventually settle down to the same kind of life with the same kind of family. Cairo arrives, and he and Brigid talk about how the black bird was smuggled out of Hong Kong. At one point she slaps him, and Spade intervenes. While he is standing between them, though, the doorbell rings.
At the door are Dundy and Polhaus, the two policemen who interrogated Spade on the night of Archer's murder. Spade refuses to let them in, until they hear Cairo inside screaming for help.
Chapter 8: Horse Feathers
The two detectives find that Cairo has blood on his head. Brigid accuses him of attacking her, and Cairo accuses her and Spade of holding him prisoner. Just as the policemen are about to take everyone to jail, Spade laughs and says that it has all been a joke. His claim that he did it to trick the policemen angers Dundy, who punches him in the jaw. Enraged, Spade refuses to answer any more questions and insists that they leave. Cairo leaves with them.
Chapter 9: Brigid
Alone with Brigid O'Shaughnessy, Spade lies and says the apartment is still being watched by the boy he saw before. He insists that she tell him the truth about what is going on: She reveals some facts about having been to Marmora and Constantinople, but he still accuses her of lying. She pulls him down against her for a long kiss.
Chapter 10: The Belvedere Divan
In the morning, Spade sneaks out before Brigid wakes up and, with the key he found in her purse, goes to her hotel, where he finds a receipt showing that she rented it the month before. Returning with breakfast, he puts the key back before she knows it was gone. He takes her back to her hotel and then goes to Cairo's hotel. Waiting in the lobby, he sits next to the young man who has been tailing him and talks cheerfully. The young man takes a threatening tone, but Spade tells him to tell G. to call him. He then humiliates the young man by bringing the house detective over and asking him, "What do you let these cheap gunmen hang out in your lobby for, with their tools bulging in their clothes?" After the young man has been forced to leave, Cairo comes in and says that he has been interrogated by the police all night but that he stayed with the same story Spade made up in his apartment.
Spade returns to his office and learns that G. has tried to reach him. Brigid is there, afraid because her apartment has been searched. Spade arranges for her to stay with Effie, his secretary.
Chapter 11: The Fat Man
Mr. Gutman calls Spade and tells him to come to his hotel. Iva Archer comes to Spade and says that she sent the police to his apartment, jealous of the other woman she saw. He tells her that lying to the police might be illegal and sends her to his lawyer, Sid Wise.
Gutman is a cheerful fat man who is very interested in finding the black bird. He is amiable, yet unwilling to tell Spade any details about the value of the bird or why it is interesting to so many people. At the end, the friendly conversation turns hostile. Spade stands up, throws his glass down so that it breaks, and shouts that he will not deal with Gutman unless he is told the truth.
Chapter 12: Merry-Go-Round
Spade's attitude in the elevator while leaving Gutman's suite reveals that his anger was just a bluff. He stops at Sid Wise's office and finds out what Iva said about her whereabouts on the night Archer was killed. At the office, Effie says that Brigid never arrived at her house. Spade hunts down the cabdriver who drove her. The cabdriver says that after picking up a newspaper, she asked to be dropped off at the Ferry Building.
Wilmer, the tough young man, is waiting for Spade at his office building. He leads Spade to Gutman's hotel at gunpoint, but before going into the suite, Spade takes his guns away from him.
Chapter 13: The Emperor's Gift
Gutman tells Spade the history of the Maltese falcon: how it was created as a present for Emperor Charles V in 1530 but disappeared in transit, showing up in various places over the course of centuries. He himself came on the trail seventeen years earlier, following it from one place to another, up to a Russian named Kemidov, in Constantinople. Gutman sent Brigid and Thursby to get it from the Russian, and they never brought it back. Spade says that he can get the bird for Gutman in a few days, but while they are talking, Gutman receives a secret message. He drugs Spade's drink, and as Spade loses consciousness, he feels Wilmer kick him in the face.
Chapter 14: La Paloma
Spade returns to his office where Effie tends to his bruise, and he offers to see her cousin, a history professor, about Gutman's tale about the Maltese falcon. He goes around to the hotels and cannot find Brigid or Gutman. At Cairo's hotel he has the house detective let him into the room, where he finds that the piece of the newspaper regarding ship arrivals is missing. Checking against another newspaper, he notes that the ship La Paloma is coming from Hong Kong, the last place the search for the falcon stopped. Effie returns to the office and says that she saw La Paloma ablaze in the harbor.
Chapter 15: Every Crackpot
Spade has lunch with Detective-sergeant Tom Polhaus and then meets with District Attorney Bryan, who tries out various theories about the murders, including one that has Thursby killed by rivals of the mobster he used to work for. Spade ends the interview by declaring that he will find the killers and give them to the authorities.
Chapter 16: The Third Murder
Spade meets with a prospective new client, talks to his lawyer about the district attorney, and then goes out to find Brigid. When he returns, he tells Effie that Brigid had been to the La Paloma, along with Gutman and Cairo. The ship's captain, Jacobi, met with them all in his cabin and then left the ship with them around midnight. As Spade is telling the story, a man comes into the office, staggers a few steps, and then falls to the floor. It is Jacobi, and he has a parcel in his arms that contains the Maltese falcon. At the same time, a call comes from Brigid O'Shaughnessy, who says that she is in trouble and needs Spade's help. Spade takes the package, tells Effie to phone the police about the dead man, but not to mention the falcon or the phone call.
Chapter 17: Saturday Night
Spade checks the parcel at a locker at a bus terminal, mails the key to his post office box, and then goes to Gutman's suite, where he finds Gutman's daughter, Rhea, drugged. He helps her walk around to stay awake, and she tells him that Brigid has been taken to an address in a faraway suburb. He goes to that address and finds it empty and showing no sign that anyone has been there recently. Returning to Gutman's hotel, he finds that Rhea left before the ambulance that he called for her could arrive. He stops to talk to Effie at her house and then returns home. Brigid meets him out on the street, and when he brings her inside his apartment, Gutman, Cairo, and Wilmer are there—with guns.
Chapter 18: The Fall Guy
Spade expresses pleasure at seeing them so that he can sell them the falcon. Gutman gives him an envelope with ten thousand dollars in it, which is less than they had talked about, but, as he explains, actual money is worth more than talk. As a condition for selling the falcon, Spade insists that they have to provide a fall guy, so that the police can consider the murders solved. At first, his suggestion that they provide Wilmer is met with derision, but after he explains his case, Gutman and Cairo help him knock Wilmer unconscious.
Chapter 19: The Russian's Hand
Spade has Gutman explain the details about how Thursby and Jacobi were killed. Gutman goes through the envelope with ten thousand dollars, which Brigid has been holding, and only finds nine thousand-dollar bills: Spade takes Brigid into the bathroom and makes her take off all of her clothes, eventually coming to the decision that Gutman has palmed the missing bill in order to make him distrust her. In the meantime, Wilmer escapes.
When morning comes, Effie picks up the falcon at the bus station and brings it to Spade's apartment. Gutman is excited, until he scratches away the black enamel coating and finds out that it is not gold but lead. He comes to the conclusion that the Russian in Constantinople must have substituted a fake bird for the real one, and he extends invitations to Cairo, Brigid, and Spade to join him in going after it. Cairo accepts, and they leave.
Chapter 20: If They Hang You
Spade immediately calls the police and tells them all that he knows about the Maltese falcon, the murders, and the suspects who are escaping. Then he talks with Brigid, explaining that he knows that she must be the one who killed Miles Archer. She tells him that if he loved her, it would not matter, and he admits that he actually might but that there are too many reasons on the other side of the equation to make love matter much. When the police arrive, they tell Spade that they caught up with the others just as Wilmer was in the process of killing Gutman. Spade turns Brigid O'Shaughnessy over to them.
The next morning, Spade arrives at the office to find that his faithful secretary, Effie, is angry at him for turning on Brigid. When he enters his private office, Iva is there, and the novel ends with his preparing to face her again.
Before the novel began, while Miles Archer was still alive, Sam Spade was having an affair with his wife, Iva. After Miles's death, Spade goes to lengths to avoid her. Iva asks Spade if he killed Miles so that he could marry her, an idea that Spade finds humorous. When she sees him with Brigid O'Shaughnessy, Iva becomes jealous and sends the police to his apartment. Spade convinces her that she could be in trouble for giving the police false information, and he sends her to talk to his lawyer for advice, giving him the chance to find out, through the lawyer, what Iva was doing around the time of Miles's death.
A partner in the Spade and Archer detective agency, Miles, leering wolfishly at Brigid O'Shaughnessy, offers to handle her case personally and is lured to his death because of his lechery. He dies forgetting his better instincts and behaving inappropriately as a detective, letting a pretty girl, Brigid, lure him up a dark alley, where she shoots him. Spade has no fondness for his dead partner, remembering that he "was a louse. I found that out the first week we were in business together and I meant to kick him out as soon as the year was up."
Phil is the brother of Miles. Although he does not appear in the novel, Phil Archer is instrumental in the plot: When he finds out that Spade was having an affair with Iva, Phil suspects that Spade might have had a motive for killing Miles, and he tells it to the police.
Cairo is frequently referred to as "the Levantine," referring to the eastern Mediterranean area he appears to have come from. He is described as effeminate in the way he dresses and in his behavior. From his tender concern for Wilmer and from references to a "boy" he had in Constantinople, it is inferred that Cairo is probably homosexual. He originally hires Spade to find the Maltese falcon, but only after searching Spade's office at gunpoint. From the way that Gutman describes Cairo, it is clear that, when the situation requires it, he can be deadly. In the end, after losing his temper with Gutman, Cairo decides to join Gutman in continuing to travel the globe looking for the falcon.
Christy, Effie Perine's cousin, is a professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley. Spade sends Effie to him to confirm whether the facts of the falcon story are plausible.
Formally known as Gutman's "secretary," Wilmer is a young man who tries to be tough and intimidating, a facade that Spade through verbal and physical attacks makes difficult to maintain. When Wilmer is trying to act cool in the lobby of Cairo's hotel, Spade points him out to the hotel detective, who asks him to leave. Before entering Gutman's hotel suite, Spade takes Wilmer's guns away from him, telling him, "This will put you in solid with your boss." After convincing Gutman and Cairo that they should give Wilmer up to the police, Spade punches him and knocks him unconscious. Wilmer's hatred for Spade projects out toward other people. There is some indication, from the way that Cairo talks gently to him, that he and Cairo may once have had a romantic relationship, but Wilmer shouts obscenities at him. In the end, the police report that Wilmer killed Gutman, a father figure to him, with multiple shots.
Of the two policemen who repeatedly come to visit Spade to find out what he knows about the events related to Miles Archer's death, Dundy is the unsympathetic one, constantly looking for ways to have Spade's detective's license revoked or even to have him arrested.
Spade tells Brigid O'Shaughnessy about a case he worked on as a detective in Seattle: Mr. Flitcraft, nearly killed by a falling beam from a skyscraper, ran away from his family to embrace life. After a few years, when the fear of death no longer haunted him, he remarried a similar woman and began a similar life in another nearby town.
Mr. Freed works at a desk in the St. Mark's Hotel, where Brigid is registered as Miss Wonderly at the beginning of the novel. He is an acquaintance who gives Spade information and is discreet enough never to mention it to anyone else.
Gutman enters the novel as an almost mythical figure, as Cairo and Brigid refer to him in conversation by drawing the first letter of his name in the air, to keep his identity from Spade. When he does meet Spade, Gutman turns out to be a jolly, affable man, taken to frequent exclamations about one aspect or another of Spade's character that he admires. He takes a paternal stance toward Wilmer, the guntoting youth who works for him, while his own daughter, Rhea, is never seen anywhere near him.
Gutman is obsessed with finding the Maltese falcon, having pursued it across the globe for seventeen years. He is willing to devote still more years toward his quest. In spite of his cheerful demeanor, he is perfectly willing to kill or betray anyone who stands in the way of his quest.
Gutman's beautiful seventeen-year-old daughter only appears in one scene in the book: After Spade has been called to the Alexandria Hotel to help Brigid O'Shaughnessy, he finds Rhea there, allegedly drugged, scratching her own stomach with a pin to keep awake. He later finds out that, after sending him off to a bogus address, she quickly exited the hotel, not drugged at all.
The captain of the ship La Paloma, he carried the falcon from Hong Kong for Brigid O'Shaughnessy. When he delivers the bird to Spade's office, he has already been shot several times, and he dies on the office floor.
Luke is the house detective at the Hotel Belvedere, where Joel Cairo is staying. He keeps Spade informed of Cairo's activities, and when Spade points out that Wilmer is loitering in the hotel lobby, he chases the gunman out.
Brigid O'Shaughnessy originally hires Spade and Archer with a phony story about trying to find a man who ran off with her younger sister. She gives them a phony name, Miss Wonderly. Her objective is to have her accomplice in stealing the falcon, Floyd Thursby, followed. After Thursby and the detective following him, Miles Archer, are shot, she turns to Sam Spade for protection, telling him more and more about the falcon and why it is so valuable, but never fully revealing all that she knows. She is manipulative, telling Spade several times how much she needs him but then disappearing from his protection when she sees a chance to attain the falcon without his help. In the end, Spade finds out that O'Shaughnessy herself killed Miles Archer and, although he believes that he may in fact be in love with her, turns her over to the police.
Effie is Sam Spade's secretary, confidante, and, in some ways, surrogate lover. She knows enough about Spade's tastes to convince him to talk to Brigid at the start of the story by pointing out how good-looking the potential client is; later, she champions Brigid, telling Spade that her women's intuition has convinced her that Brigid is a good woman; at the end, when she finds out that he has turned Brigid over to the police, she turns against Spade in a way that she has not throughout the book. Spade's interactions with Effie frequently include the kind of physical contact and terms of endearment that people of contemporary society find inappropriate in a business situation.
Polhaus is Spade's friend on the police force, a detective-sergeant. When he and Dundy interrogate Spade, it is Polhaus who asks Spade to behave reasonably, interceding between the two men when they start fighting.
Spade is the hero of the novel. He is a veteran detective, telling a story at one point about a case he handled several years earlier when he was with a large agency in Seattle. He is defiant toward the law, but careful about just how defiant he can be without endangering his practice, consulting with his lawyer when necessary to make sure that he is not putting himself in legal jeopardy. And he gives clients and potential clients the impression that he is willing to break the law if he has to in order to attain the results they need. As Spade points out late in the book, he finds it good for his reputation as a detective to project this impression of corruptibility.
Spade is cynical in his relations with women. Before the start of the novel, he has been having an affair with Iva Archer, the wife of his partner. When she finds herself free to marry him after Miles Archer's death, Spade makes it clear that he was just toying with her. He is in fact sick of Iva and angry when she manages to catch him alone. He never fully trusts Brigid O'Shaughnessy, forcing her to submit to a strip search in order to see if she has stolen some of the reward he has received for the Maltese falcon. Still, in spite of taking precautions against her possible betrayal, there are clear indications that he is in love with her.
The force that drives Sam Spade is a moral code that is more important than financial gain, power, or love. He has a sense of what is right and what is wrong, regardless of his personal feelings. He does, however, try to hide the fact that he is acting morally, preferring to explain away his actions as good business moves. Turning in Gutman and his crew, for instance, entails giving up the ten thousand dollars that they gave him, but he says that there is no other way to escape culpability in the crimes that they committed. In the end, though, after examining all of the reasons why it is right to send Brigid to jail, he cannot overcome his love for her without pointing out the bedrock moral rule that a man cannot let the murder of his partner go unpunished, even if it was a partner whom he detested.
Thursby never appears in the novel. He is a hoodlum from St. Louis and Chicago, who met Brigid O'Shaughnessy in Hong Kong and helped her steal the Maltese falcon. In San Francisco, she hired Spade and Archer to follow him, assuming that Thursby would either be killed or scared away. He was killed by Wilmer to scare Brigid into giving up the falcon.
Spade's lawyer is a member of the firm Wise, Merican, and Wise. Several times, Spade consults with him about whether actions he is considering are legal or could be prosecuted. Spade sends Iva Archer to Wise after she has given the police false information, saying that Wise will protect her legally. Later, Spade has Wise tell him what Iva has said.
Code of Honor
Throughout most of this novel, the protagonist, Sam Spade, seems to be too cynical to hold any deeply held convictions. His love life is defined early on by his affair with Iva Archer, the wife of his business partner, whom he openly detests. Financially, he seems perfectly willing to sell his services to whoever offers him the most money, at one point taking on both Joel Cairo and Brigid O'Shaughnessy as clients, even though their interests clearly conflict. His encounters with the police and the district attorney imply that Spade is more interested in making sure that his business is not disturbed by the events surrounding Miles Archer's death than he is in seeing justice prevail.
And so it is a surprise when, at the end of the novel, Spade's behavior turns out to be directed by a code of honor that he understands clearly and respects. He seems frustrated and a little embarrassed when trying to explain to Brigid O'Shaughnessy why he cannot take the corrupt and easy solution, which would entail accepting the money that he has been given by the criminals and going on to live his life with the woman he loves. Most of his reasons for turning away from the easy solution are based in logic—the police would find out about his involvement in the affair anyway, and he would never be able to fully trust Brigid, no matter how much he might or might not love her. In the end, Spade's decision to turn Brigid in to the police comes down to one basic rule that he cannot bring himself to break: "When a man's partner is killed he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it." Spade's shift in diction, into the "you" perspective, indicates that he believes this to be an absolute law that applies to all cases at all times, regardless of individual circumstances.
Most of the characters in this novel are motivated by the dual interests of greed and self-preservation. Joel Cairo, Brigid O'Shaughnessy, and even Sam Spade himself are intrigued with the untold wealth that is promised to come with the retrieval of the Maltese falcon, so long as the wealth will not come with the price of death or imprisonment. For Casper Gutman, though, the search for the falcon is so personal that it has become his identity. Having devoted the past seventeen years of his life traveling the globe and spending untold money on his quest, Gutman can imagine no other existence. For a moment, on finding that the falcon brought to San Francisco is just a leaden replica, Gutman allows despair to take over his usually cheerful optimism, but almost immediately he gathers his wits about himself and is ready to start off in search of the bird once again.
Although the novel gives little background about Gutman, Hammett makes it clear that his obsession with the falcon is the most important thing in his life by showing how callously he treats his family and surrogate family. He only seems aware of the existence of his daughter, Rhea, when he is able to use her to distract Spade from getting the falcon before him; he is willing to put Rhea in legal and even physical jeopardy without a second thought. As Gutman explains to Wilmer, after offering to make him the "fall-guy" for the police: "I couldn't be any fonder of you if you were my own son; but—well, by Gad!—if you lose a son it's possible to get another—and there's only one Maltese falcon."
The Maltese Falcon presents an acknowledgement of homosexuality that is rare in 1920s fiction, especially in mainstream popular fiction. There is no question that Joel Cairo is gay, a fact that is implied frequently throughout the novel, as when Brigid O'Shaughnessy laughingly suggests that the boy outside shadowing them might be "the one you had in Constantinople" or, even more pointedly, when Sam Spade asks Wilmer where Cairo is, referring to him as "the fairy."
Most of the references to Cairo's sexuality are derogatory stereotypes. Hammett describes him as an overly preened dandy, with "slightly plump hips," wearing fawn spats, chamois gloves, and "the fragrance of chypre." He gives Cairo dialogue such as "Oh, you big coward" and has him call for help with a "high and thin and shrill" voice. Still, Hammett offsets this offensive caricature by giving Cairo some degree of individual dignity as a criminal: He stands up to an all-night interrogation from the police without cracking, and he decides in the end that his attraction to Wilmer, who must be turned over to the police, is less important than the profit he stands to make from the falcon. Cairo's homosexuality is mocked throughout the novel, but as a man he is taken seriously.
- Research the development of detective work from the 1930s through today. How do the methods of a detective like Sam Spade relate to the methods of detectives today? What are the differences and similarities between the way private detectives conduct their work when compared with public detectives? How has modern forensic study changed the nature of detective work and solving crimes?
- Research the history, structure, and work of the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem. Why do you think Hammett chose this organization as part of the motivation for the plot of The Maltese Falcon? How likely is it that the order might have given a jewel-encrusted falcon to the Emperor Charles V, as is mentioned in Hammett's novel?
- Sam Spade refuses to talk to the District Attorney, saying that he may be forced to testify before a grand jury or even a coroner's jury. Find out the legal status of witnesses before either of these two juries where you live, and prepare a report that outlines what Spade would be in for if either jury were convened in the deaths of Miles Archer and Floyd Thursby.
- After Spade, the second most famous American detective of the twentieth century could be Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. Humphrey Bogart, who played Sam Spade in the acclaimed 1941 film adaptation of The Maltese Falcon, also played Marlowe five years later in the adaptation of Chandler's The Big Sleep. Watch both movies, and write a comparison/contrast paper about Bogart's acting styles in portraying these two different yet similar characters.
While a traditional hero might be counted on to do the right thing for the common good, the protagonist of The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade, responds to every situation by examining what he himself stands to gain from it. Spade is willing to betray his friends, and he has an affair with his business partner's wife. He does not work within the law, but checks in with his lawyer regularly to see how far outside of the law he can go. And he is an untrusting lover, accusing Brigid O'Shaughnessy of duplicity the moment that the falcon is discovered to be fake. Hammett establishes his questionable moral position in the novel's first paragraph, describing him as looking "rather pleasantly like a blond Satan."
In the end, Spade explains to Brigid O'Shaughnessy that his seemingly amoral behavior is just a ruse that he uses to draw criminals to him, which is good for the detective business. He behaves heroically, forsaking the money and the girl who is begging for his support, in favor of a higher ideal. The novel successfully mocks traditional heroic values and at the same time reinforces them.
The Maltese falcon that is at the center of this story is described as being made of gold and jewel encrusted, making it very valuable, with a unique history that makes its value inestimable. Readers never see the real Maltese falcon in the story, but its importance drives the plot ahead. It is a metaphor for Gutman's obsession, Cairo's greed, O'Shaughnessy's duplicity, and Spade's curiosity.
Film director Alfred Hitchcock is said to have coined the phrase "the MacGuffin" to represent the object in a film or novel that all of the characters are seeking. The object can be something of monetary value, like the Maltese falcon, or of strategic value, such as top-secret government documents. Sometimes, novels never even tell readers what is in the briefcase or vial or envelope that is being hunted. The reason that an otherwise irrelevant term like "MacGuffin" is used is that the desired object usually is irrelevant, in and of itself, becoming important only when it is interpreted as a metaphor for the characters' motives and desires.
Prohibition and Gangsters
Sale of alcohol had been illegal in the United States since 1920, when the 18th Amendment was ratified and signed into law. Congress passed the National Prohibition act, also referred to as the Volstead Act, to provide law enforcement agencies with the means to enforce the ban. While the intent of the amendment was to hinder the use and abuse of alcohol, it ended up having the unintended effect of creating a profitable industry for criminals to rise to power.
As federal agents struggled to control the production, sale, and transportation of alcohol, those who were willing to take chances and oppose the law saw great profits. As a result, criminals found it in their best interests to organize their distribution networks to regional chains. Although illegal, liquor became easily available, most notably in "speakeasies," which were underground nightclubs. Profits were high enough to absorb the costs incurred when federal agents raided speakeasies and confiscated or destroyed liquor supplies, and local law enforcement agencies were bribed to make sure that such raids were infrequent.
Each town had its criminal empire. Chicago, for instance, spawned the most famous gangster of the time, Al Capone, who rose to power in 1925. In the next two years, he made 60 million dollars through the sale of liquor alone. Criminal syndicates like Capone's, and dozens of others like it across the land, were manned by low-level foot soldiers and those who patterned themselves after the gangsters. By the late twenties the gangster image was well known in American popular culture. Hammett gives Floyd Thursby, murdered early in The Maltese Falcon, the background of a typical gang member of the time. Wilmer Cook, the young henchman for Casper Gutman, clearly patterns his menacing stance after pop culture images of hoodlums of the time, an image that Sam Spade openly mocks.
The Great Depression
The Maltese Falcon was published at a time when America needed escapist literature to deal with the harsh economic realities that had suddenly come crashing down, first on the nation and then on the whole world. During the 1920s, the economy had sailed along at a comfortable rate, with stock prices climbing year by year. In the absence of any major international conflict, the overall mood was one of peace and prosperity. That changed on October 29, 1929, just months before this novel was printed. On that day, known as Black Tuesday, the stock market lost about 12 percent of its value, which, combined with massive losses the day before, started a downward trend that continued for the next three years. By the end of November, investors had lost 100 billion dollars; by mid-1932 the stock market was worth only 11 percent of its value before the crash.
The instability in the market drove America into one of the worst depressions it has ever experienced. Banks and businesses closed, causing ordinary people to lose both their jobs and their savings. Unemployment went from around 6 percent before the crash to nearly 25 percent in the 1930s. The government tried policies meant to stimulate the economy, but real economic growth was stalled until the start of World War II, in 1939, when America provided munitions for the warring countries before being drawn into the conflict itself.
When The Maltese Falcon was first published, Dashiell Hammett was little known outside of the small, specific world of crime fiction. This is the book that changed that and brought his name to the attention of reviewers of literary works. For instance, William Curtis, reviewing the book in Town & Country, an upscale leisure publication, admitted, after comparing Hammett to literary figures of the time (including Ernest Hemingway):
I think Mr. Hammett has something quite as definite to say, quite as decided an impetus to give the course of newness in the development of the American tongue, as any man now writing. Of course, he's gone about it the wrong way to attract respectful attention from the proper sources.... He has not been picked up by any of the foghorn columnists. He's only a writer of murder mystery stories.
In his review for the New York Herald Tribune, Will Cuppy wrote, "This department announces a new and pretty huge enthusiasm, to wit: Dashiell Hammett. Moreover, it would not surprise us one whit if Mr. Hammett should turn out to be the Great American Mystery Writer." The humor magazine Judge pronounced the writing in The Maltese Falcon to be "better than Hemingway."
By 1934, the novel was so recognized for its literary merit that it was included in the Modern Library collection. Hammett's subsequent novels—The Glass Key and The Thin Man—were championed by reviewers, but they also found more flaws in them than they did in The Maltese Falcon, which remained the high point of his literary output.
- 1930: It is considered acceptable and even friendly for an employer like Sam Spade to address an employee like Effie Perine with terms of affection such as "angel" and "precious."
Today: The use of such terms, usually associated with romance, is socially and legally forbidden, as they might be used to pressure an employee into an unwanted relationship.
- 1930: Steamship passage from Hong Kong to San Francisco can take weeks but is the most common way of travel.
Today: The trip from Hong Kong to San Francisco can be done by jet plane in a matter of hours.
- 1930: Hotels have house detectives who keep an eye on the guests to make sure that they are not bringing illegal activities into the hotel. Usually, house detectives are retired policemen.
Today: Computerized information systems make it easier for ordinary desk clerks to check background information more thoroughly than house detectives were ever able to do.
- 1930: Americans think of private detectives as being on the border between legal and illegal activities.
Today: The private eye mythos still appears sometimes on television, but people generally do not believe the job to be as glamorous as it once was presented to be.
Hammett's reputation remained static throughout the 1930s and 1940s, as he went year after year without producing another novel, though interest in The Maltese Falcon surged when the film version starring Humphrey Bogart was released in 1941. In the 1950s, Hammett was sent to jail for his association with Communists, and the House UnAmerican Activities Committee actively worked to keep his works banned from libraries. By the 1960s, though, the anti-Communist hysteria was forgotten, and soon after Hammett's death in 1961 the reading public returned to him. In the early 1980s, in particular, there came a slew of biographies and critical studies of him, firmly ensconcing Hammett's name into the halls of American literature. As the great crime novelist Ross MacDonald took time to observe in his 1981 autobiography, Self-Portrait: Ceaselessly into the Past, "I think The Maltese Falcon, with its astonishingly imaginative energy persisting undiminished after a third of a century, is tragedy of a new kind, deadpan tragedy."
Kelly is an instructor of literature and creative writing at two colleges in Illinois. In this essay, Kelly traces the facts that can be deduced about Sam Spade's true personality from his interactions with characters who are not involved in the Maltese falcon caper.
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 self-awareness, 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 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.
- Fans of this book will see an entirely different kind of detective in debonair Nick Charles, the hero of Hammett's next and last novel, The Thin Man (1934).
- While Sam Spade is a rugged individualist, Hammett's previous detective character, The Continental Op, was a pudgy, nameless operative of the Continental Detective Agency. He is the protagonist of two earlier novels, Red Harvest and The Dain Curse, both published in 1929.
- Brian Lawson's novel Chasing Sam Spade (2002), published by Booklocker Press, presents a man who goes to San Francisco to investigate the murder of his father, only to become wrapped up in a web of intrigue with clues taken from Hammett's novel. The city's atmosphere plays a strong role.
- The writer who is most often associated with Hammett is Raymond Chandler, whose stories of Los Angeles detective Phillip Marlowe have a sense of hardboiled fatalism and a verbal style that approaches Hammett's skill. Of the Marlowe books, The Big Sleep (1939) is the most popular, possibly because Humphrey Bogart played Marlowe in the 1946 film.
- Many crime-novel connoisseurs consider James Ellroy to be the modern-day heir to Hammett and Chandler. Of his novels, L.A. Confidential (1997) is often singled out for its seamless storytelling and its dark vision. It tells the story of three policemen involved in a scandal-ridden case in Los Angeles in the 1950s.
- Though many literary studies have been made of Hammett's life, a more personal look at him, including family photos, was done by his daughter Jo Hammett in her book A Daughter Remembers (2001).
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.
In the following essay, Marling uses a then-and-now approach to analyze how Hammett weaved various period and stylistic references into his characters and their actions in The Maltese Falcon.
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 ash-dotted 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 five-dollar 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 square-cut 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.
In the following essay excerpt, Symons explores symbolism, including the meaning of the Flitcraft story, in The Maltese Falcon.
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.
In the following essay excerpt, Marling examines Spade's philosophical outlook and detective's code as they relate to the moral climate in The Maltese Falcon.
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 nineteenth-century 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.
William F. Nolan
In the following essay, Nolan provides an overview of the creation of and critical response to The Maltese Falcon, focusing on dialogue, characterization, and censorship. Nolan is the award-winning author of the science fiction classic Logan's Run, adapted to film in 1976, starring Michael York. Nolan has been cited as "the leading Hammett scholar." In addition to his critical study Dashiell Hammett: A Casebook, Nolan is alsothe author of a full biography entitled Hammett: A Life at the Edge (Congdon & Weed, 1983). He has written extensively on Hammett for magazines and has just completed a third book on the author, A Life beyond Thursday: Solving the Hammett Mystery, now in submission by the Trident Media Group in New York.
Recalling the San Francisco of Hammett, and The Maltese Falcon, veteran columnist Herb Caen vividly described the gritty atmosphere of this fog-haunted 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 last-act 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-than-worthy 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 self-realization 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-to-book 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.
Cuppy, Will, "Mystery and Adventure," in New York Herald Tribune, February 23, 1930, p. 17.
Curtis, William, "Some Recent Books," in Town & Country, February 15, 1930.
"Judging the Books," in Judge, March 1, 1930. MacDonald, Ross, Self-Portrait: Ceaselessly into the Past, Capra Press, 1981, p. 112.
Gregory, Sinda, Private Investigations: The Novels of Dashiell Hammett, Southern Illinois University Press, 1985.
Coming from outside of the small, specific world of detective fiction, Gregory examines Hammett's novels with the same critical eye that one might apply to the works of Dostoyevsky or John Updike.
Layman, Richard, Dashiell Hammett: A Descriptive Bibliography, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1979.
This book gives a comprehensive, painstakingly assembled survey of Hammett's many novels and stories, with the detailed publication history of each.
Marling, William, "Dashiell Hammett, Copywriter," in The American Roman Noir: Hammett, Cain, and Chandler, University of Georgia Press, 1995, pp. 93–147.
Marling's analysis of Hammett, and of The Maltese Falcon in particular, fits into a larger context of detective fiction in books and films.
Wolfe, Peter, Beams Falling: The Art of Dashiell Hammett, Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1980.
Wolfe approaches the author's life as a mystery, piecing together clues from his writings to create a convincing portrait of the man.
"The Maltese Falcon." Novels for Students. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/maltese-falcon
"The Maltese Falcon." Novels for Students. . Retrieved October 17, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/maltese-falcon
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