The Maltese Falcon and the Great American Novel

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Michael Cohen

The Maltese Falcon and the Great American Novel



In 2014 the Pennyroyal Arts Council in western Kentucky, along with many other regions and states, chose The Maltese Falcon for “The Big Read” they were sponsoring. The National Endowment for the Arts created “The Big Read” to encourage communities to read one book together and then to gather to discuss it at community-wide events organized around the book choice. The council asked me to be their keynote speaker for the book, and what follows is based on that presentation.
  Mystery fans know that with The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett started an entirely new, entirely American variety of detective novel—the “hard-boiled” mystery. To be fair, Hammett has to share the credit with other writers for the pulp magazine Black Mask, where The Maltese Falcon first appeared in serial episodes starting in September, 1929. The date is significant, as I will argue below.
  But the book would not have been chosen for “The Big Read” in Kentucky—and Massachusetts and Illinois and Kansas and California—if it merely offered a new kind of detective fiction. In 1998 the Modern Library put The Maltese Falcon on its list of the best novels of the twentieth century, suggesting that it is not just a good mystery, but a great novel. It is also distinctively American. What readers and critics have been saying for a long time now is that The Maltese Falcon is not just an interesting development in detective fiction; it is in fact one of the great American novels of the first half of the twentieth century.
  Before we explore what makes it an American classic, consider Hammett’s originality as a detective writer and the “hard-boiled” epithet. The early popularity of the book during the Depression and the movies made from it during its first ten years are connected to its appeal as a mystery and all of these things are also connected to the features that make it an enduring American classic.


The First Hard-Boiled Detective Novel

The detective before Spade was always some variation on Sherlock Holmes. You remember how Sherlock Holmes works. He shows up at the murder scene and pulls out his magnifying glass. He examines something his sidekick Dr. Watson can’t even see. Then he pulls out a measuring tape and measures the distance between two marks. Watson can’t see them either. Finally he straightens up and announces that the murderer was a left-handed streetcar conductor, six feet tall, with a slight limp and a bad cold, who smokes Trichinopoly cigars.
  The theory behind this sort of story is that the world is readable like a book because everything leaves traces. Even thoughts leave marks; there are a couple of places in the Sherlock Holmes stories where Holmes interrupts Watson’s daydreaming and tells him exactly what he’s thinking. Even thoughts leave marks in the sense that when you’re thinking you look at particular things, your expression changes, and so on. The world gives up its secrets to the careful observer.
  The most distinctive thing about Sam Spade’s world is deception. Everybody lies. Even his client lies to him. Sherlock Holmes’s clients never lied. They might not have understood the meaning of what they told him, but they always told the truth. Brigid Wonderly Leblanc O’Shaughnessy, on the other hand, lies about nearly everything, lies as soon as she opens her mouth. She makes up a name, makes up a sister, makes up a story. And it is no surprise to Spade. “Oh, we didn’t believe your story,” he says to O’Shaughnessy, “we believed your two hundred dollars.” In a deceptive world in which the client lies, the detective lies, everybody lies, even physical objects participate in the deception: the black bird is not what it has promised to be.
  Spade’s is also a very material world. The city of San Francisco is present physically in Hammett’s pages. We could draw a map of the Stockton Street overpass area where Miles Archer is murdered from the description. And the interiors of hotel lobbies, offices and bedrooms are all described in enough detail that we can visualize them. And we learn enough detail about Spade’s rolling a cigarette from Bull Durham tobacco, and later of Effie Perine’s doing it for him, that it amounts to a primer on rolling your own. The physicality extends to the detective’s method. Where Sherlock Holmes observes, Sam Spade bumps up against his world. Hard-boiled detective work is a contact sport. Sam Spade kisses Iva Archer, hugs Effie Perine, and sleeps with Brigid O’Shaughnessy. He is poked and pushed and eventually punched by Lieutenant Dundy, hits Joel Cairo in the face, is drugged by Casper Gutman and kicked in the head by Wilmer, the gunsel, whom Spade has already manhandled and whom he will punch later. Compared to later hard-boiled mysteries, The Maltese Falcon has less violence, no real fistfights, no hitting the detective over the head with a blunt object—the sort of thing you get much more of in the novels this book inspires. But there is a good deal of roughhousing and a lot of trial and error as Spade tries to figure out what is going on. He operates so much in the dark he has to keep trying to shake people up so that they’ll accidentally tell him some of the truth. “My way of learning,” says Spade, “is to heave a wild and unpredictable monkey-wrench into the machinery.”
  Spade lies too, partly by pretending to know more than he really does. He surprises Cairo with a question from nowhere about a daughter; he throws Cairo’s name at Brigid, and he generally pretends to know more than he really does about how to get hold of the falcon.
  What is required to survive in Spade’s world is not great powers of observation, though it turns out that he does observe a great deal. In a world of deception and violence, the detective needs a hard shell and the endurance to survive. He is alone in the world; he has no sidekick. He doesn’t even have a partner after the first chapter.
  The hard-boiled detective has a code that goes with the job. “When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it,” he says, and he is willing to make a personal sacrifice to follow the code. At the same time, the code seems to be pretty flexible, allowing him with no strain on his conscience to take money from various people and to take advantage of everyone’s greed and desire for the big money the statue seems to promise them. But the extent to which he is corruptible by money is left ambiguous. “Don’t be too sure I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be,” he says, “That kind of reputation might be good business—bringing in high-priced jobs and making it easier to deal with the enemy.”
  Spade has a peculiar relation with the police. They certainly do not ask him to help solve their cases, as the police often ask Sherlock Holmes. Spade eats pickled pigs’ feet with Tom Polhaus, and the two men have much in common. But the police are resentful of the free-and-easy methods of private detectives. They are constrained by the job. “We don’t like this any more than you do,” says Tom Polhaus to Spade, “but we got our work to do.” And Spade is resentful in turn, because they’re going to find someone to pin these murders on, and it just might be him. But he gets them to drink with him, an interesting moment that differs markedly in the book from its counterpart in the Bogart movie, made after Prohibition had been repealed. In the book, the cops are not just drinking on the job; they are drinking Spade’s contraband Bacardi. The cops are not necessarily corrupt, but Spade has no real confidence they won’t take the easy way out and arrest him unless he finds them a “fall guy,” as he calls it. But he isn’t bothered too much by the fact that the police aren’t his friends, and he says, “It’s a long while since I burst out crying because policemen didn’t like me.”
  There is more ambiguity here. Spade looks like he is willing to throw anybody at the police as a fall guy—though Wilmer is hardly an innocent. Spade looks like money is the only thing he’s interested in through most of the book. But at the end the police have the people who really did the murders. Spade gives up the thousand dollars he took from Gutman as “expenses.” Effie’s mad at him, and he still has Iva Archer to deal with.
  Another aspect of the story that differs from Sherlock Holmes tales is that the puzzle is not centered or highlighted. During most of the book we are not thinking about who killed Miles Archer. It is a dramatic moment at the end when Spade reveals that he knows who killed Miles and that he has apparently known for some time. But that is quickly lost in the drama of what he will do about it—will he play the sap for Brigid, as he puts it. During most of the story, we’re not thinking about the murder mystery at all—we, like all the characters, are concentrated on the black bird.


The Great Depression and the Film Versions

A month after the first episode of The Maltese Falcon appeared in Black Mask magazine, the stock market crashed and the Depression began. By the time The Maltese Falcon came out in book form in 1930, the country was beginning to feel what the Depression was really going to mean for everybody. The book went through seven editions that year, and it was very popular during the next ten years, the worst years of the Depression, until the war began in 1941.
  During that time three movie versions of the book were made. The first one, in 1931, with Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels, eventually got shelved because it did not meet the standards of the new Motion Picture Code developed in the early 1930s. The references to Wilmer and Cairo’s homosexuality presumably were not as subtle as they needed to be to escape the censors. The second movie, in 1936, was called Satan Met a Lady. It was a botched version of the story starring Warren William and Bette Davis, and it was so bad that Bette Davis almost broke her contract with Warner Brothers rather than make it. But it was the Depression, and even movie stars needed to pay the rent. Finally in 1941, the young screenwriter John Huston made his first movie as director, the version of The Maltese Falcon that most people are familiar with. Huston was smart enough to stick very closely to Hammett’s actual words, and he was lucky enough to achieve almost perfect casting, with Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, Sydney Greenstreet (in his first film) as Casper Gutman, Gladys George as Iva Archer, Lee Patrick as Effie Perine, and Ward Bond as Police Detective Tom Polhaus. At five-seven, the dark-haired and fairly slight Humphrey Bogart was far from the six-foot, burly, blond “Satan” that Hammett describes in the first paragraphs of the book, but he inhabited the role so successfully that some of us cannot reread the book now without hearing Bogart saying the words we are reading.
  In the decade before that version, though, the book resonated with Depression readers. Depression America too, was a deceptive and dangerous world, where everything looked fine one day and the next day something that happened a thousand miles away in New York could take your job away. It was a hard world physically, when jobs assumed great importance and people who had jobs were willing to do a lot just to keep them. In the story, trust is talked about often, and almost everyone breaks trust at one point or another. The country is thinking about trust a lot, and FDR makes it explicit that the economic system of the country depends on trust and people have to have it, even if it has once been betrayed. A lot of Americans changed their attitudes about the police during this time, especially those people rousted by cops because they were on the streets or because they were jumping trains to find work elsewhere or just to be on the move.
  And finally there was that dream of striking it rich somehow, anyhow. A pipe dream, of course, of getting to easy street, of making it to the Big Rock-Candy Mountain. For most people it was a dream as futile as Casper Gutman’s seventeen-year quest for the unimaginably valuable falcon. The black bird is, in a line that Hammett didn’t write but John Huston brilliantly added, paraphrasing Shakespeare, “the stuff that dreams are made of.” (Hammett does quote Shakespeare at least once, when Cairo is trying to console Wilmer and Wilmer is rejecting Cairo’s advances, Spade sarcastically comments, “The course of true love” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where one of the lovers says he’s heard that “The course of true love never did run smooth.”


An American Classic

In 1999, the Library of America (a nonprofit publisher which operates with seed money from the National Endowment for the Humanities) published The Maltese Falcon in its Literary Classics of the United States series. Being published by The Library of America amounts to canonization; you make it and you are part of the American canon of greats. The publisher put his money where his mouth is to manufacture this book. It is one thing for the Modern Library to call The Maltese Falcon one of the best books of the twentieth century; it is quite another for The Library of America to put up the dough to make a fine hardback edition. “Oh, we didn’t believe your list . . . we believed your money.” What makes Hammett, in the words of Dorothy Parker, “as American as a sawed-off shotgun” and his book an American classic?
  One of the reasons The Maltese Falcon is a classic is its style. You probably have a favorite quote from Spade’s wisecracking. Mine is “It’s a long while since I burst out crying because policemen didn’t like me.” Everyone in the book, not only Spade, has a distinctive style of speaking and can be recognized from a short quote. Think about Gutman’s “By Gad, sir . . .” and Cairo’s mincing speech, obviously being translated from his native language as he talks, and Tom Polhaus’s reaction “Aw, c’mon, Sam.” This command of colloquial speech is the mark of great writers like Mark Twain. There is also a sparseness to the description in the book that has been compared to Hemingway’s style, and in fact Hemingway was developing his style at the same time in the twenties. But Hammett is not simply spare with words; he wants the right one and sometimes surprises you with it. Let me read a few lines of the description of Captain Jacobi of La Paloma as he staggers into Spade’s office with a package containing the black bird:

      He stood in the doorway with his soft hat crushed between his head and the top of the door-frame: he was nearly seven feet tall. A black overcoat cut long and straight and like a sheath, buttoned from throat to knees, exaggerated his leanness. . . . Held tight against the left side of his chest by a black-sleeved arm that ended in a yellowish claw was a brown-paper-wrapped parcel bound with thin rope—an ellipsoid somewhat larger than an American football.

The meticulous detail of this description is capped—when we arrive at the parcel that is our first encounter with the falcon statue—with the precision of the word “ellipsoid.”
  Hammett’s plot, too, is impeccable: he keeps our minds off the murder mystery for most of the book until we see that Spade must have figured it out fairly early on. The struggle for the falcon, the promise of unmeasurable riches, occupies the center of the book, and the struggle is peopled with characters as odd and memorable as you could wish for. Hammett describes each with a few lines as he introduces them; then he lets their dialogue and their actions develop them.
  But the plot is a fantasy, and the characters are mostly very strange, too. Is there any reason to make that ship’s captain seven feet tall? The style helps make us believe people talk this way, even if they don’t. Finally, though, I think what makes the book an American classic is the combination of features that I have already mentioned that resonate with Americans, and not just Depression-era Americans, but people today as well.
  One example is the book’s treatment of the police. Sam’s dealing with them reflects some real things about our own relation with police. Americans have always been somewhat suspicious of the police. We know that the possibility of corruption is always present, but even without corruption there can be abuse of power. If a district attorney or a police captain believes someone is guilty, we won’t be surprised if they go right to the edge of the rules to try to convict. We as a people don’t like authority. We started by rejecting the idea of anyone having a divine right to rule us. Then we built a government in which each of the three parts is supposed to watch the other two carefully and keep them honest.
  Spade is an individualist without a sidekick, without a confidant, without a partner after the first chapter. He’s the guy real detectives want to be, like the ones who worked alongside Hammett at the Pinkerton Detective Agency. And yet, he’s not a renegade or a Rambo. He knows the system and he works it. He has a lawyer. He knows how to talk to a district attorney. He knows what his job is.
  The job in America is a moral arena. Novelists like William Dean Howells and Sinclair Lewis explored in their books the question of whether success in business meant disregard for moral niceties. But the question has to be asked about jobs in general. Do you have to step on people to get to the top? Do you have to step on people to get to the end of the day? The book makes us think about the job. Of course, the bad guys have no jobs and do not want one—Cairo, Gutman, Wilmer. But others in the book do, and the laziness of the police—or their eagerness to find somebody to pin the crime on—the ambition of the district attorney, and the desire of Spade to be good at his job: do these things mean people are inevitably going to get hurt? The Maltese Falcon is an entertaining way to play out some of those moral questions.
  At the end of the maze is the black bird itself—the Maltese Falcon. Of course, there is nothing American about the Knights of Malta, the Crusades, or Charles V and the Holy Roman Empire. But the promise of wealth, or certainly the hope of prosperity, is a characteristic American dream. The hope and the promise are two of the reasons people come here—the Polhauses from northern Europe, the Dundys and the O’Shaughnessys from Ireland, and so on. In this book the promise of great wealth comes from the east via the Englishman Gutman, the Knights of Malta, and the “Levantine” Cairo, somewhere from the eastern Mediterranean. The Americans, Wilmer and O’Shaughnessy and Spade himself, for a while, latch on pretty tight to the idea of fantastic wealth. The bird is the big prize, the ultimate Powerball, the lottery so rich no one seems to know its limits, though Gutman says the lower limit is two million. A 1930 dollar would have bought you fifty times what one buys now, so the bird would be worth at least a hundred million—in other words, lottery-size money. But in fact the statue is worthless.
  Well, not completely worthless. While it exists, the black bird is a touchstone that shows us what each of the characters is like. Some might say that is the way money works for Americans—shows you what they’re really like.
  The Maltese Falcon has a very clear narrative structure; the book is very simply organized into scenes. One of the reasons Huston’s movie was so successful was that he didn’t alter the book’s basic shape. The book already looks like a screenplay. When you compare the first two scenes of the book and the 1941 movie, you find that the first scene is a well-lighted daytime scene in Spade’s office that follows Hammett’s dialogue closely. The second scene begins in darkness:

      A telephone bell rang in darkness. When it had rung three times bed-springs creaked, fingers fumbled on wood, something small and hard thudded on a carpeted floor, the springs creaked again, and a man’s voice said:
        “Hello . . . Yes, speaking . . . Dead . . . Yes . . . Fifteen minutes. Thanks.”

Hammett tells you exactly how to film the scene, and Huston does it. The result is a very simple, very modern-seeming way of telling the story.
  Another feature that seems modern is Spade’s very coldly realistic, unromantic view of his own job and life. A third of the way through the book, Spade tells O’Shaughnessy about a man he searched for in Washington and Oregon, a man named Flitcraft, who abandoned his wife and children to start a completely new life when a construction beam fell near him and he realized how quickly and arbitrarily he could have been killed. The incident, he felt, “had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works,” showing him that it was not the “clean orderly sane responsible affair” he had thought but “that men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them.” The part Spade likes best is that when nothing further happened of this revelatory or remarkable sort, Flitcraft settled into the same middle-class suburban life he had left behind.
  Spade’s perspective takes in the whole picture, including the fact that life can be an affair where one dies “at haphazard like that”—especially if one goes seeking danger as a detective—but is still, even for the detective, often banal and predictable. Spade says he got it—what made Flitcraft act the way he did—but Flitcraft’s wife never understood, naturally. Brigid doesn’t get it either. But he’s telling her that when beams and fabulous birds and beautiful liars stop dropping into his life, he’s still going to be a detective. This means ultimately she’s going to jail. When Effie asks him at the end how he could have done that to her, his answer is, “Your Sam’s a detective.”