Dashiell Hammet’s brief novel of hardboiled detective fiction, complete with femme fatale, reptilian bad guys and an antihero to die for, is one of the touchstones of the genre. It forever shattered the mould of the genteel English manor mystery where an intellectual detective matched wits with a slimy adversary who had done murder most foul, and explained it all in the hushed precints of the library and declaimed modestly how the butler had done it. The film John Huston made (after two previous versions which were nowhere near as good or iconic) forever rescued Bogart from being a character actor in middling b-movies, and laid one of the cornerstones of movie noir. And in its spare, clipped style, it presaged Hemmingway’s economical prose and the minimalism that would become a major aspect of American letters in the decades to follow.
Partly this is because of its style. The use of verbs and clipped adjectives throughout the pages makes the prose literally leap off the page in the best traditions of the dime novels of the previous century, and indeed, in Sam Spade we see a cowboy made modern, walking the mean streets instead of the open range, carrying his own code of honour about him. He’s tough, he’s mean, and he doesn’t pine for a happy ending. Compared to the lead in this novel, Phillip Marlowe is a wuss, and even Mike Hammer in I the Jury doesn’t quite come up to scratch. Sam Spade is cold, like his name. He doesn’t bat an eye when his partner is killed; kisses the man’s wife as soon as the door is closed and before the body is properly cold. Sleeps with his treacherous client without batting an eye, and then gives her up to the fuzz after making one of the classic speeches in pulp. He takes the world as he finds it, and doesn’t give a damn about anyone…except maybe his secretary, who cares for him in her own way, and who accepts him as he is.
It’s only after you get into the book a little that you realize the Maltese falcon itself, and the search for it, is really a bit of a red herring, a MacGuffin – it doesn’t matter what the object in play really is, as long as everyone wants it (remember the suitcase in Pulp Fiction?), and this provides the engine that carries the plot (such as it is) hurtling along. And after we finish the journey and stop for breath, we realize that to some extent, this is less a novel about Sam Spade getting the falcon than it is about a state of mind in urban Americana. Previous murder mysteries and detective fiction had always somehow seen the crime as an aberration, something to be corrected after the game was up and the bad guys were found – but Hammett knew that to do this in the context of his antihero would be deadly. What he wrote — and what was such a shocker — was not only the classic closing scene, but the overall intimation that crime and murder and dark, dank streets where goodness did not triumph and evil presided, were the norm.
We see the Maltese Falcon perhaps in terms of stereotypes, but to think this way is misleading, given where we are in time. So much subsequent fiction and moviemaking has used the themes Hammett wrote about so effortlessly, it is difficult for us to remember how many of them he actually created. Consider: all noir heroes were and are tough, but we could always sense, after this novel, that such toughness and cynicism covered old wounds and sadnesses never discussed; the femme fatale, the equal of any man, who used sex as a weapon and who outmaneouvered men at every turn; the frank placement of a homosexual character (and possible relationship), front and centre; and the use of street slang and vernacular in a way that enhanced the mood and setting of the urban jungle. This one slim volume set the stage for all the characters and films that would one day follow. It created the milieu in which noir became an important branch of moviemaking (LA Confidential could have leapt straight out of Sam Spade’s world), and even science fiction borrowed heavily from the dystopian urban world dreamed up (or recreated from life) by Hammett, and if you doubt me, just watch Blade Runner or Dark City again.
Dashiell Hammett drew heavily on his experiences as a Pinkerton agent when he turned to writing. Starting with Red Harvest and then The Dain Curse (both in 1929) he wrote the seminal Maltese Falcon novel in 1930. Some prefer Red Harvest, and other give pride of place to the Glass Key (1931), but for my money, I’ve always preferred The Maltese Falcon, where Hammett’s signature one-syllable tough guys and six-martini drunks mix it up with deadly dames and supercilious baddies as they make their stubborn, unheralded and painful way to a usually unrewarded truth.