From cheap pulp to classic literature, The Maltese Falcon has come along way in 75 years. Nicholas Taylor takes a look back at Dashiell Hammett's hardboiled tale with one quesion in mind -- does Sam Spade still thrill?
Seventy-five years ago, Knopf published The Maltese Falcon, a novel by Dashiell Hammett, a popular contributor of short stories and serializations to the detective fiction magazine Black Mask. Hammett already had two novels under his belt, Red Harvest and The Dain Curse, both of which were respected but hardly made him a superstar. Upon its publication, The Maltese Falcon received excellent reviews and cemented its author's reputation as a top-notch crime writer. The influence of The Maltese Falcon, however, was far from complete. John Huston's 1941 film version, starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, catapulted the story into the upper echelon of American popular culture. Bogart's portrayal of Sam Spade, the tough-nosed private investigator at the center of the plot, brought Hammett's wonderful and multi-faceted character to a wider audience.
In the years since, readership and critical respect for Hammett's work has grown. Not only has his conception of the detective story had wide influence on the genre, but the genre itself has gone from being viewed as cheap pulp fiction to being one the classic benchmarks in 20th century American culture. One need look no further than the fact the Library of America has devoted two entire volumes to Hammett, ensuring that his oeuvre will remain in print indefinitely.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Maltese Falcon, and Vintage Crime/Black Lizard has reissued the book, along with 1934's The Thin Man, 1929's Red Harvest, and a best-of collection of Hammett's work, Vintage Hammett. All four volumes are sleek, attractive paperbacks at an affordable price. While all these works have been widely available (in other paperback editions as well as in the Library of America volumes), their reissue provides an opportunity to assess how Dashiell Hammett fits into our culture today. Does The Maltese Falcon still have anything to say to us? In a post-civil rights, post-feminism, postmodern world, what use do we have for hard-drinking, fast-talking, no-nonsense characters like Sam Spade?
In certain respects, ours is a culture obsessed by crime, as evidenced by the fact that the most popular shows on TV are crime dramas, which owe a lot to Hammett's example. In Hammett's world, everybody has ulterior motives, all officials are corrupt, and solutions are often messy and incomplete. Detectives are not idealists but realists, and they realize that sometimes you have to roll up your sleeves and get a little dirty. Criminals are oftentimes not personifications of pure evil, but rather cautionary tales of everyday people led astray by greed, desire, and avarice. The line between lawful and lawless can be a bit shaky. All the actors are human, and their motives are always at least understandable. Inevitably, the decisions that need to be made tough ones that are less than ideal. All of these elements are descendents of Hammett's innovations of the 1920s rather than, say, the Edgar Allan Poe or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle-style detective stories of the 19th century.
At the same time, Hammett's vision of crime narrative is decidedly different from the one currently bracing popular culture. For example, Sam Spade uses none of the following in The Maltese Falcon in order to solve the mystery of the black bird: dreams, visions, mathematical equations, and, most importantly, he almost never relies on forensic evidence of the C.S.I. variety. Spade, the Continental Op, Nick Charles, and all the rest of Hammett's protagonists usually let the criminals do themselves in by sticking their nose in other people's business, shaking things up, relying on a sharp knowledge of human nature, and, ultimately, a faith in hunches. As the Continental Op says in Red Harvest,
Plans are all right sometimes And sometimes just stirring things up is all right -- if you're tough enough to survive, and keep you eyes open so you'll see what you want when it comes to the top.
All our TV detectives today work for the police. In Hammett, however, the heroes are not the police, but rather the private detectives. In The Maltese Falcon, Spade is hounded and hampered as much by the police as by the criminals. Dundy, the police chief out to get Spade, is a caricature of idiocy, dullness, and timidity, as opposed to Spade's razor intelligence, flair, mystery, and spontaneity. In Red Harvest, in fact, the difference between the cops and the criminals is simply of matter of which side is wearing a uniform.
More than anything else, however, it's Hammett's treatment of sexuality and gender that makes him feel decidedly not 21st century. Spade, described as a "devil," is a portrait of unbridled masculinity fleeing the confines of feminine domestication at every turn. From a cultural-criticism standpoint, in fact, the subplot of The Maltese Falcon is more engaging than the main plot. There's a rare black statuette in the shape of a falcon, worth millions, many people want it, and Spade gets tangled in the mess of trying to find it. What's more interesting, however, is the trio of women at the center of Spade's life: Brigid O'Shaughnessy, the stock femme fatale, who is defined primarily by sexuality and deceit (hardly a favorable portrayal); Effie Perine, Spade's boyish secretary, who always comes through for him in a pinch, yet is rewarded with little else that the detective's pigheaded rages and selfish demands; and, the figure looming over the entire novel, Eva Archer, Spade's slain partner's widow, with whom he was having an affair. Spade spends the entire novel trying to avoid Eva, who, quite understandably, wants to be comforted by her lover in the wake of her husband's murder. Spade continually ditches her, seemingly unable to handle any emotions other than rage or lust. Is it guilt that makes him wary of Eva's advances? Is he now unable to sleep with her due to a respect for his partner in death that he didn't have in life? In any event, when faced with Eva's emotional maelstrom, Spade is lifeless and dumb. Upon learning that Eva is waiting for him in his office, all he can say to his secretary is: "I asked you to keep her away," to which she responds, "Yes, but you didn't tell me how." The truth is, Spade has no idea.
I wouldn't write Hammett off as an out-and-out misogynist. Yes, his hero is an uber-masculine beast, a devil of brute strength with a skeptical, analytical mind. There are definitely cracks, though, moments when Spade does not come off as a charismatic swashbuckler, but rather a scared, emotionally crippled man with no idea how to relate to the other sex. His lawyer, Sid Wise, calls him a "son of a gun"; Effie Perine calls him "the most contemptible man God ever made." Men are impressed and intimidated by his bluster; women are appalled by it, though his animal magnetism compels them to give him another chance, time after time.
Before I go too far and make Hammett sound like a proto-feminist, I should add that he couldn't write women to save his life. In all his novels and stories, he never created one multi-faceted, three-dimensional female character. They are all defined by very singular and limiting qualities, such as sexuality, virtue, or emotionality, but rarely a complex mixture of these traits. His women are foils to the ego flexing of his masculine detectives. Even Nick Charles, the foppish boozehound detective protagonist of The Thin Man discounts women, not through brute masculinity, but through condescension and placation.
What is inexcusable, however, is Hammett's portrayal of homosexuals. In a good number of his works there appear gay characters (tipped off by coded characteristics such as effeteness, stylishness, sophistication, and sensitivity), who are always cast in a negative light. Knopf wanted Hammett to tone down the gay material in The Maltese Falcon, which consists of the implied relationship between criminals Joel Cairo and Wilmer Cook. Hammett refused and eventually got the novel published uncensored, yet that hardly makes him an admirable defender of free speech and diversity. Cairo is portrayed as a wimpy, delicate, materialistic, greedy "fairy," while Cook's delicate eyelashes and pale skin disturb Spade the entire novel so much that he never misses an opportunity to insult or even assault the young man. Hammett's homosexuals are always objects of scorn, much more so than women. After all, to the Sam Spades of the world, women may be disgustingly feminine, but they do have sex appeal, after all; homosexuals are nothing but an annoyance, and even a threat.
When I sat down to write this piece, there were many different directions in which I could've gone. I could've discussed Hammett's prose stylings, his machine-gun dialogue, his wit and humor, his gothic vision of early 20th century San Francisco. I could've investigated the ambiguity in Hammett, the postmodern holes in his narratives, the bleak, existential worldview that has Paul Auster so interested in Hammett's work. But as I read through his works again, I could not ignore the ties that bind him to our time, as well as the notes of discord that make him feel a bit alien. Hammett should certainly not be written off as "just" a crime writer; but neither should he be hailed as "just" a crime writer. If he's got a place in the canon, and the Library of America as well as Vintage Books certainly think he does, then he must stand the test of time.
Reading Hammett in 2005 must be much different than reading him in 1930. If anything, however, the modern reader is able to get more out of his writing. Yes, we're dazzled by his ingenious plot structures, and spellbound by his dialogue, and enchanted by his quaint noir-speak; but we can also gain glimpses of the subtext, the complexities of gender that percolate under every page of The Maltese Falcon. I'm sure in another 75 years, even deeper levels of complexity will arise from these pages, teased out by readers with perspectives more advanced than we can bring today. Despite his misogyny, and his homophobia, and his status during his life as a pulp writer, he is a novelist that is certainly worthy of sticking around in the canon for another 75 years.