Sunday, February 21, 2010



Much of what has been written about Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon focuses on the novel as groundbreaking in its realistic portrayal of detective work. More in-depth literary studies tend to focus on the significance of Hammett’s shift in protagonist from the incorruptible and nameless Continental Op of his earlier work to the jaded self-portrait of the author as Sam Spade. In my view, this transition is primarily noteworthy in that Hammett’s protagonist changed from an idealized conception of the man he might have become had he remained a Pinkerton Operative (the Continental Op is based on Hammett’s boss during his stint with the Pinkerton Agency) to a more self-reflective portrayal of a man mired in moral conflict. Hammett’s own moral crisis would color his fiction from this point until he resolved his dilemma and settled into a life alternating his celebrity status with reclusiveness - a life whose one constant was Hammett’s complete lack of creative output for remaining 27 years.

Many have speculated why Hammett’s creativity dried up when he and his muse and mistress Lillian Hellman had settled comfortably into something approaching unwedded bliss as the Nick and Nora Charles of the real world. My own opinion has been that once freed of the conflict of whether or not to walk a path of integrity or give in to the encroaching corruption that constantly assailed his world, Hammett had nothing further to draw upon for inspiration. Resolution was tantamount to becoming a spent force and Hammett was finished as a writer. The fact that he realized this fact was inescapable lies at the heart of both The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key in their pursuit of empty dreams incapable of satisfying the characters whose lust is so great they are willing to die for or kill in their futile quests.

Hammett’s characters are marked as slaves of their appetites by their very names from Casper Gutman, the silver-tongued Fat Man of The Maltese Falcon to the murder victim who leant his moniker to The Thin Man. Hammett’s Fat Men and Thin Men are doomed by insatiable appetites for the empty objects of their desire. Whether starved or bloated, their hunger for that which will never grant them the sustenance they seek is unending and proves to be their undoing. The Maltese Falcon’s prized Black Bird with its mythological history is nothing but a worthless forgery beneath its shiny exterior. Those who have pursued the bird and have not forfeited their lives or liberty in its pursuit by the book’s conclusion do not learn from their folly, but simply continue to follow the next false trail.

What of Sam Spade and his moral dilemma? Surely, the detective protagonist is above such base temptations? While Spade is embroiled with those who seek the Black Bird, his own conflict is dealing with the murder of his partner, Miles Archer and dealing with Archer’s wife, Iva. Spade has been sleeping with her behind Archer’s back and she expects Sam to make an honest woman of her now that her husband is no longer around to stand between them. What most literary critics miss in focusing on the gritty realism of Hammett’s story is that Iva Archer represents Spade’s own Black Bird, his empty object of desire that threatens to be his undoing. The novel begins and ends with Sam and Iva. There is no mistake that the book’s opening description of Spade as a blond Satan (Hammett is describing himself at the time of the book’s writing) and the story concludes with Spade finally ready to face Iva and make the decision that will determine his fate for better or worse. That Hammett keeps Spade’s ultimate choice outside the story’s parameters is essential to a book built on moral dilemmas.

It is the role of the detective in mystery fiction to identify the root cause of the chaos that has set the story in motion and to restore order to an unjust world. The police in hardboiled fiction are stereotyped as corrupt or stupid (and frequently both), so the best hope for the few honest victims out there lies in the form of the private detective who eschews the organizational corruption of both City Hall and the Mob and chooses instead to live hand-to-mouth from one client to the next. This is how Hammett the union-buster for the Pinkerton Agency is the same Hammett who did a prison term for refusing to testify against his fellow Communists during the McCarthy witch hunts while still staying true to himself throughout his adult life.

Spade, like his creator, knows right from wrong every time unless it involves his libido. Miles Archer isn’t as smart or as trustworthy as Spade, but Spade still feels he has wronged his partner by sleeping with his wife and that makes him even more determined to see that Miles’ killer is brought to justice. When Archer’s murderer turns out to be Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the client Sam has been sleeping with, the central point that Sam’s libido is the source of the chaos in his world is brought home to him again and makes the book’s final scene where Sam faces Iva Archer all the more powerful as Spade has no choice but to accept that his own lust has made him a morally destructive force comparable to Casper Gutman, the Fat Man he so understandably despises.

As is the case with any true classic, this is but one aspect of what makes The Maltese Falcon a contender for the finest detective novel of all time and a book whose literary merit will make it the subject of discussion and a source of influence for decades to come. I remain a dedicated follower of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer stories, but like Hammett’s own subsequent Sam Spade stories (“A Man Called Spade,” “Too Many Have Lived,” and “They Can Only Hang You Once”) or Joe Gores’ recent prequel novel (Spade & Archer) or even John Huston’s classic 1941 film adaptation with Bogart, none of them are the Black Bird we’re seeking.

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