Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon: Pulp Fiction or Literary Masterpiece

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by Clover Carroll

the_maltese_falconYou may have heard the hilarious “Guy Noir” detective spoofs on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion (NPR), but did you ever wonder what original stories inspired them? Look no further than Charlottesville’s 2011 Big Read selection, The Maltese Falcon (1930) by Dashiell Hammett, the book that “set the standard by which all subsequent detective fiction would be judged” (Big Read Reader’s Guide (RG)). This classic example of noir detective fiction will be discussed by the Crozet Library Book Group on Monday, Feb. 7, at 7 p.m. Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) spent a number of years with Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency in Baltimore, Maryland, an experience that provided fodder for his many popular detective stories and novels, including The Thin Man. Most of them were originally published in the pulp fiction magazine Black Mask, many in serial form. Eventually, Hammett’s tuberculosis caused him to retire from active jobs, but not from writing. After an unsuccessful marriage, he began a relationship in 1931 with playwright Lillian Hellman, which lasted until his death.

“Noir,” which means black in French, has come to denote fiction and drama (as in “film noir”) that deal with the dark side of human behavior and explore themes of greed, corruption, betrayal, and the difficulty in distinguishing between good and evil. The Maltese Falcon is set in the mean, foggy streets of 1920s San Francisco, when it was one the largest and busiest deep-water ports in the world. Sam Spade, the hard-boiled, hard-drinking private detective who is the hero of the book, seems to have an affinity with the blackhearted criminals he outsmarts, pretending to be working with them until he is able to uncover the truth behind the series of strange events. The story begins (as in so many Guy Noir sketches) when a beautiful woman arrives in Spade’s office begging him to help her find her missing sister. After he and his partner Miles decide to take on the case, Miles heads out to track a thug named Thursby whom she has fingered. By morning, not only are both Miles and Thursby dead, but Spade himself is a suspect in their murder because he was having an affair with Miles’s wife. The plot only becomes more complex from there, with a host of shady characters led by the wealthy gourmand Gutman, who has spent a lifetime obsessed with finding a jewel-encrusted ceramic falcon statue created for the Emperor of Spain by the crusading Knights of Rhodes in return for the territory of Malta. Hammett borrowed this legend from medieval history, which actually chronicles a lease of land to the Knights Hospitaller from King Charles V in return for the annual fee of a live falcon. In Hammett’s version, the statue was stolen by pirates before ever reaching the king, passed down through generations, and covered with black plaster as a disguise. The story picks it up in Constantinople, where, of course, various ruthless criminals are trying to get their hands on it. Spade’s motives in joining in the search may be interpreted as honorable—“when a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it….it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it,” he points out—or selfish, in that he needs to prove his own innocence. His personal moral code—one that does not, apparently, condemn adultery—may be what causes him to risk both life and reputation in his attempt to bring the murderer to justice.

The most intriguing aspects of this entertaining and masterfully written book are the character of Sam Spade himself, the way the crime’s ingenious solution is withheld from the reader until the last possible moment, and Hammett’s original and much-imitated writing style. Spade is the epitome of old-fashioned masculinity—a loner at odds with society, a man of few words, self-possessed and unemotional (with the help of copious amounts of straight whiskey and hand-rolled cigarettes), irresistible to women, physically strong, and able to quickly disarm his opponents—kind of like the wild west hero Wyatt Earp transplanted to the urban landscape. Smarter than—and admired by—everyone around him, including the crooks and the (typically bumbling) police, Spade unravels the mystery based on the same tangled set of facts the reader has witnessed, while that same reader remains utterly stymied. This effect is achieved partly through Hammett’s use of third person objective narration, so that, while we follow Spade’s every move for the intense six days of the drama and seem to know all that he knows, we are not privy to his thoughts, which is where all of the brilliant interpretation of the events takes place. Not until the final two chapters does Spade put all the pieces together and unveil the final astonishing plot twist. “The Maltese Falcon is a bomb that starts ticking in the first chapter, ticks faster as it goes, and doesn’t detonate until the last pitiless page” (RG). This dramatic technique is enhanced by Hammett’s sparse, ‘just-the-facts’ writing style and staccato sentences, reminiscent of the case reports he wrote as a professional detective. “The writing is gritty, understated, and tough” (RG), appropriate to the genre of urban realism and creating a tone of danger and anxiety. We are presented with an objective rendition of detail without interpretation, inviting us to draw our own conclusions: “Miss Wonderly watched the grey flakes [of the cigarette ash] twitch and crawl. Her eyes were uneasy. She sat on the very edge of the chair. Her feet were flat on the floor, as if she were about to rise. Her hands in dark gloves clasped a flat dark handbag in her lap” (ch. 1). Much of the action is rendered through dialogue, which keeps it moving quickly but often hides as much as it reveals. The originality of this style and skill in its execution sets Hammett’s writing apart from most popular fiction. He aspired to raise detective fiction to the level of literature, and in the opinion of many critics, he succeeded.

Like Spade himself, many of the characters are stereotypes, some of them repeatedly labelled: the greedy “fat man” Gutman, the femme fatale Wonderly/O’Shaugnessy, using her wiles to manipulate men (and who seems to be the only one capable of making a sandwich), the slippery, violent “Levantine” (oriental) Joel Cairo. These attitudes were both more typical and more acceptable at that time than they are now. While the book does contain its share of sexism, the final surprise outcome credits the female sex with considerable intelligence, as if the culture were waking up to women’s true capacity for both good and evil.

From our safe, peaceful vantage point in Crozet, the sordid streets of 1920s San Francisco may seem far away, but the peerless Dashiell Hammett will bring them to life in your imagination. For a total escape and a fun, fast-paced page-turner, pick up The Maltese Falcon. And if you do, be sure to ask for a free Reader’s Guide at the library and take in one of the many Big Read events being held around the area during March and April, including lectures and discussions at most public libraries, a showing of the classic 1941 John Huston film starring Humphrey Bogart at the Paramount on March 7, and a visit by local detective writer Andy Straka with his live falcon to the Crozet Library on Wednesday, March 2.