Brains as well as brawn

Corner of Post Street and Market Street, San Francisco, 1920s

The Maltese Falcon
by Dashiell Hammett.
Orion Books 2002 (1930)

San Francisco, 1929. A woman arrives at the offices of Spade and Archer, private detectives, and reveals she fears for her sister’s safety in the company of a man called Floyd Thursby. Her affecting performance sets Sam Spade off on an investigation in which the body count rises to four, bluff is countered by double bluff, and more alcohol and tobacco is consumed than can be good for one’s health.

While remaining in one small corner of California we hear about incidents in London, Constantinople and Hong Kong, and learn of historical events in the Mediterranean. How is everything linked, how does Sam Spade go about his investigations, and how is it that he nearly always seems one step ahead of everybody when by all accounts he should be behind them?

Hammet’s classic crime mystery is as good as its reputation makes it, and while The Maltese Falcon is possibly better known in its incarnation as a 1941 film noir starring Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre I shall always have the immediacy of this text from nearly a century ago paramount whenever I think of the story.

Ferry Building Loop, San Francisco, 1920s (Emiliano Echeverria/Randolph Brandt Collection)

This is a tightknit novel with a distinctive cast of characters, dressed in the prejudices that pertained at the time whenever white males wrote of their fellow humans. The principal females, usually addressed as sweetheart, darling or angel, are invariably young-ish and pretty and playing to type such as the vamp or drama queen, the efficient secretary or emotional leech. The males are only a little more varied, either tough-talking detectives trying to be top dog or else deferential colleagues; one of the villains is fat-shamed, another addressed as ‘punk’ to rile him up, a third described as Levantine (a synonym for Arab or possibly Jew). But despite the apparent stereotypes each comes across as an individual with whom Sam Spade delights in verbal sparring, and sometimes even real fisticuffs.

Because of the author’s background as a Pinkerton detective all the operational details feel authentic enough; the setting is a San Francisco in which it’s still possible to follow the action through named streets, apartment blocks and hotels but the atmosphere remains claustrophobic, with most of the interactions taking place in closed rooms, lobbies and offices. The plot itself is full of red herrings, involving a wild goose chase for the titular object frequently described as “the black bird”, but throughout it’s Spade that dominates our attention: we bystanders see most of what happens in his presence. Additionally, we have to guess what’s really going on in his mind from external clues — his changing demeanour more than any sardonic utterances, themselves clearly designed to deflect and misdirect from what he’s really calculating, to wrongfoot anybody and everybody, including the reader.

It’s the sharp dialogue which truly distinguishes this novel, so clever and witty that it was largely taken over verbatim in both the 1931 and 1941 film scripts. The second version had to remove most of the sexual innuendo (including homosexual references) and more explicit sequences (such as a strip search) but has great characterisations; although more racy the first movie, with its ham acting and spacious interior sets that wouldn’t look out of place on a theatre stage, somehow loses the intimate atmosphere I think of as intrinsic to the novel.

Central to the plot, the axis on which everything turns, is the figure of Spade. He is by no means perfect and, a hundred years later, it’s hard not to be appalled by all the drinking and the smoking and the casual attitude to violence and death. But I think most of us would be on Sam’s side or at any rate hope he’d be on ours: mercenary he may be (he has to make money, after all) he nevertheless has an ethical dimension which it’s hard to fault: if villains won’t amend their behaviour they deserve to have justice meted out to them, even if at times it’s rough justice. And you can’t help but be in awe of someone who choreographs his way through the terrains sown with mines by almost everyone he comes across — thieves, murderers, lovers, district attorneys. Working with brains as well as brawn he gets to the truth, to his satisfaction as well as our relief.

At the heart of the novel is of course the classic MacGuffin, the Maltese Falcon. Hammett concocts such a plausible historical background for this fictional objet d’art that it still fools a few gullible readers, but MacGuffin it remains: as a stimulus for the plot it’s effective but it isn’t what the story is really about. What is it about? To get an inkling of that nothing serves better than an actual read of the novel.

Entrance to Ferry Building and the Embarcadero, San Francisco (ca. 1925) via OpenSFHistory, Emiliano Echeverria/Randolph Brandt Collection

6/21 TBR Books in 2021

22 thoughts on “Brains as well as brawn

  1. piotrek

    I have an Everyman’s Library volume on my shelf, with three Hammett’s novels, including this one. One of the books I’ve bought and never read… maybe I should include it in my plan to read through my backlog, as the book is no worse than the great movie…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, as you say, ‘the prejudices that pertained at the time whenever white males wrote of their fellow humans’ – and that was my sticking point.
    I could not see how, no matter how well plotted, characterised etc etc, republishing such stuff was excusable.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Now there’s an interesting conundrum you pose, Michael. Here’s what I think. Every past individual who has uttered or published their thoughts, which have then been remembered by posterity, will have expressed or exhibited some of the prejudices of the day which are no longer acceptable. Does this mean their thoughts should be consigned to oblivion regardless of anything else expressed that remain acceptable?

      It was George Santayana who’s quoted as saying “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” And again, “Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes.” I don’t hold to the belief that we should erase or at any rate never repeat “such stuff”, only that we should always acknowledge and explain its context without necessarily condoning it.

      I don’t excuse Hammett’s apparent misogyny, anti-semitism or substance-abuse by saying it was common at the time; but I refuse to throw the baby out with the bathwater when he’s capable of writing a gripping tale. In any case, it’s been six decades since Hammett has been around (he died in 1961) and is extremely unlikely now to profit from his writings. I wouldn’t have read this thriller and formed judgements about it if it hadn’t been republished.

      Finally, nowhere in this novel does he really interpose himself as omniscient author commenting on thoughts and motivations: he merely describes actions and reactions and what’s said, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions. Sam Spade is not Dashiell Hammett; nor is he Humphrey Bogart or Ricardo Cortez, who played him on celluloid; he’s what you see in your mind’s eye.

      So, I’m glad I read this, perceived warts and all; and I remember that the person I was, with all the prejudices I had sixty years ago this year, is not the person I am now, and I would not want to erase that gauche teenager from history because he may have said something unfortunate.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Karen. This is my first Hammett so, no, Red Harvest is a field I’ve yet to visit! As regards the man himself the little I’ve read about Hammett the more I warm to him: especially knowing he had leftish leanings and stood up for his beliefs against the wicked McCarthyite witch hunts suggests that behind Sam Spade’s renegade approach (certainly where authority was concerned) there was a morality that wasn’t at all self-serving.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Although of course I’ve heard of this, I realise now I knew nothing about it so thank you! I haven’t even watched the film. I agree that context is all we need to learn from the past.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I must admit I’d not seen the famous version from 1941 before, Jane, and even now I’ve only watched clips online from this and the earlier 1931 version; as it was the cliché of the private investigator and his frosted glass office door loomed large in my imagination and coloured my reading of this.

      Glad you agree that context is important — but then I’ve been interested in history and archaeology all my life so I would, wouldn’t I! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. One of my all-time faves — both book and film — despite the problematic writing. That final scene between Spade and Miss O’Shaughnessy is remarkable for its intensity and honesty (can something be heartless and heartfelt at the same time?). I’m sure you’ll enjoy The Thin Man as well, but as I recall Nick Charles drinks his way through pretty much the entire novel (and Nora Charles isn’t far behind), without showing any adverse effects.


    1. Heartless and also heartfelt? Absolutely. Psychologically the interplay between Bridig and Sam is wunderly, I mean, wonderful, and in fact the whole is essentially a series of interviews played like chess games, with some sleuthing as the interludes in between. I can see why both book and film are all-time faves with you!

      Drinking and smoking were Hammett’s downfall health wise, weren’t they, with emphysema what largely took him off, I understand. An interesting life, all in all: I think I need to explore those classic thrillers more, having enjoyed novels by Eric Ambler and Hammond Innes in recent years — curiously I was never much attracted to them as a youngster.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Loved this one! Lots of people say The Big Sleep is better, but I felt the plot of this one held together better. Frightening to think it’s nearly a century old, but that made it easy for me to overlook the outdated attitudes. I wonder what people of the future will think of our current literary output…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Prissy? Postmodernist guff? Navel-gazing? Over-sensitive? Woke? I can hear online commentators and intellectual trolls gleefully sharpening their vengeful knives even now, and some may already be laying into the twitching body… 😁

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve seen the film (though quite long ago), but can’t remember if I’ve ever read the book (in case you haven’t do also watch the Sylvester and Tweetie version, The Maltese Canary, very sweet, Humphrey Bogart makes an appearance). Spade I guess is the archetype hard-boiled detective, and despite their flaws from a current-day view point, I think many of these could make for interesting reading–as you say, this was a gripping one.

    I love the Thin Man films, so perhaps when I read Hammet, I might pick that one up first.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Had a look at a clip of The Maltese Canary on YouTube, looks good with Grannie as a stand-in for Sam Spade! I’m definitely up for more Hammett, but may wait till lockdown has eased a bit in Wales and things are open to look for a copy of The Thin Man (e-readers don’t suit me, sadly).

      Liked by 1 person

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