(Book Review) The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

By Ian G. Wilson

Sam Spade, The Fat Man, Joel Cairo, Brigid O’Shaughnessy: all of these names will stir the memories of any lover of hard-boiled detective fiction. Of course, the characters brought to the screen in 1941 by Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Mary Astor will be fondly recalled by fans of classic film noir as well. As many times as I had heard these names, as many times as I had seen John Huston’s movie, and, as much as I have enjoyed the written works of the hard-boiled school, I had never actually read The Maltese Falcon. It was time to fix this gap in my literary experience, so I pulled my dusty paperback copy of the novel off the shelf.

I am not a fast reader, but the book took off from the moment we are introduced to Spade and ripped away until the final revelation about the Black Bird. Is it an easy read? Not necessarily. Hammett had a tendency to use only simple and compound sentences, which might seem like simplicity itself, except that some of them are almost a paragraph long. But once you get the gist of his writing style and his pattern of introducing characters by means of precise physical descriptions, things run along at a breakneck pace. The dialog is a treat, a veritable glossary of gangster slang from the 1920’s, and increases the tempo with its wittiness and clipped style.

“But isn’t it violent?” you might well ask. Well, yes and no. Three people do get gunned down, but Hammett never describes the shootings, and, for the most part, we don’t even see the bodies. Wilmer, The Fat Man’s henchman, carries a lot of heat, and Cairo packs a small pistol, but Spade doesn’t carry a gun, saying he doesn’t like them. Most of the book is actually about the games and double-crossing the characters carry on with each other in their efforts to locate the Maltese Falcon.

The setting is San Francisco, and many local landmarks are mentioned, but a surprising amount of the action takes place in Spade’s apartment, assorted hotel rooms, or the office of the private detective. We begin at the office, where Miss Wonderly comes to Spade wanting to find her sister, who has run off with a dangerous man named Thursby. Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, enchanted by their client’s beauty, takes the job of shadowing Thursby, and ends up shot dead on a sloped lot.

Spade is not unduly distressed by this (he didn’t like Archer much), and he either is or was carrying on an affair with Archer’s wife, Iva, the commitment to which is more in her mind than his. When the police show up at the detective’s apartment in the wee smalls, we discover that Thursby has also been shot to death, and Spade is suspect number one, supposedly killing the ruffian in revenge for Archer’s death. Spade adroitly fends off the officers, who have no real evidence against him, in a marvelous “good cop/bad cop” scene: 

‘You’ll tell it to me or you’ll tell it in court,’ Dundy said hotly.

‘Maybe. And here’s something for you not to forget, sweetheart. I’ll tell it or not as I damned please. It’s a long while since I burst out crying because policemen didn’t like me.’

Tom left the sofa and sat on the foot of the bed. His carelessly shaven mud-smeared face was tired and lined. ‘Be reasonable, Sam,’ he pleaded. ‘Give us a chance. How can we turn up anything on Miles’s killing if you won’t give us what you’ve got?’

‘You needn’t get a headache over that,’ Spade told him. ‘I’ll bury my dead.’

Lieutenant Dundy sat down and put his hands on his knees again. His eyes were warm green disks. ‘I thought you would,’ he said. He smiled with grim content. ‘That’s just exactly why we came to see you. Isn’t it, Tom?’

Tom groaned, but said nothing articulate. Spade watched Dundy warily.

‘That’s exactly what I said to Tom,’ the Lieutenant went on. ‘I said: “Tom, I’ve got a hunch that Sam Spade’s a man to keep the family troubles in the family.” That’s just what I said to him.’

The wariness went out of Spade’s eyes. He made his eyes dull with boredom. He turned his face around to Tom and asked with great carelessness: ‘What’s itching your boyfriend now?’

The following day, we discover that Miss Wonderly has been lying; that her real name is Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and she is in San Francisco for reasons that she can’t divulge for fear of her life:

He sat on a brocaded oval backed chair facing her. She looked at her fingers, working them together, and said: ‘Mr. Spade, I’ve a terrible, terrible confession to make.’ Spade smiled a polite smile, which she did not lift her eyes to see, and said nothing.

‘That—that story I told you yesterday was all—a story,’ she stammered, and looked up at him now with miserable frightened eyes.

‘Oh, that,’ Spade said lightly. ‘We didn’t exactly believe your story.’

‘Then-?’ Perplexity was added to the misery and fright in her eyes.

‘We believed your two hundred dollars.’

‘You mean-?’ She seemed not to know what he meant.

‘I mean you paid us more than if you’d been telling the truth,’ he explained blandly, ‘and enough more to make it all right.’

Spade is mildly attracted to her, but sensible enough to realize that she is asking for his help without giving him any information to go on. Later, Joel Cairo arrives at Spade’s office and attempts to hold up the private eye while he searches for an “ornament.” Spade quickly subdues the small man, knocking him out, and turns out his pockets. Cairo awakens and presses Spade to help him recover the Black Bird, offering him $5000. As Cairo doesn’t have nearly that amount of money on him, Spade doesn’t commit, but he does return the man’s pistol, whereupon Cairo promptly holds him up again and searches the office, much to Spade’s amusement.

All this time, Spade is being followed by a young gunman, whom the experienced detective consistently outwits. The hot-tempered henchman, Wilmer, is in the employ of Caspar Gutman (aka The Fat Man) who summons Spade for a meeting and dissembles at length:

They drank and lowered their glasses.

The fat man looked shrewdly at Spade and asked: ‘You’re a close-mouthed man?’

Spade shook his head. ‘I like to talk.’

‘Better and better!’ the fat man exclaimed. I distrust a close-mouthed man. He generally picks the wrong time to talk and says the wrong things. Talking’s something you can’t do judiciously unless you keep in practice.’ He beamed over his glass. ‘We’ll get along, sir, that we will.’

Spade finally loses his temper over Gutman’s long-windedness and gives him until five-thirty to tell him exactly what the falcon is and why he wants it. The search for the falcon is on, and Sam Spade has to figure out who all these people are and what their relationship to the falcon and to each other is, preferably without getting himself killed or arrested by the police, who still hope to pin Thursby’s murder on him. Not going further into the plot, I will say that Spade comes through by the skin of his teeth.

The book is unexpectedly frank for a novel published in 1929, and more so than the movie. References to Cairo’s homosexuality and his relationship with Wilmer are abundant, and Spade sleeps with O’Shaughnessy. The sexual aspects are not graphic, but it would be fair to say that this is a masculine novel, even though O’Shaughnessy turns out to be a very dangerous woman. It is also true that Effie Perine, Spade’s secretary, is a smart and extremely competent aide to her employer; she has a larger role in the book than the film.

Spade’s relationship with the women in the novel is complex—frequently condescending, often affectionate, sometimes ruthless, and occasionally tender and caring. For example, he attacks Cairo when he slaps O’Shaughnessy, but then later strip searches her for a $1000 bill which he knows she doesn’t have. The fact that he is generally likable stems from the story being related only via his actions, from his quick wittedness and good sense of humor, and probably from the fact that the reader never quite knows Spade’s true feelings about the people he encounters, since we only get an indication of them through his dialog (there is no interior monologue). As is the case with most protagonists in hard-boiled fiction, Spade is cynical about emotional attachments and even about his own feelings. In some ways, the detective comes off diplomatically, mostly because of his wry amusement about the people he encounters and because he almost always acts in a professional manner (or at least what would have been considered professional for the 1920’s).

The casting in Huston’s film was marvelous, though there may be some surprises for readers of the novel—for example, Spade is blond. Huston, when he adapted the book, had the good sense to keep a lot of Hammett’s dialog, but, curiously, perhaps the most famous line, “The stuff that dreams are made of” that ends the film does not appear in the book, which finishes instead with a scene between Spade and Perine. It is, however, a very faithful adaptation, which I think is part of the reason for its success.

Hammett was born in 1894, and despite debilitating illness, served honorably in both World Wars. Nonetheless, he was blacklisted during the McCarthy era for his left-wing activities. He carried on a long term relationship with the playwright Lillian Hellman. His writing tailed off during the last half of his life, but he left us with five classic novels, including The Glass Key, Red Harvest, and The Thin Man. The Maltese Falcon is the only novel in which Sam Spade appears, although the detective does show up in a number of short stories. Hammett died of lung cancer in 1961.

The Maltese Falcon was serialized in the pulp magazine Black Mask between 1929 and 1930 before its publication in book form by Knopf in 1930. Greenville Public Library has two copies, as well as a special edition of the film on DVD.

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