Thanks to Alissa Keller, the Historic Museums of Hopkinsville, Margaret Prim and the Pennyroyal Arts Council for inviting me here. And thank you, all of you, for coming out this fine October evening. I know you could be relaxing on the patio or having burgoo with your friends in your favorite eating place. But thanks for supporting the Big Read and for bringing me here.
You may know that with The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett started an entirely new, entirely American variety of detective novel—the hard-boiled mystery. To be fair, Hammett has to share the credit with other writers for the pulp magazine Black Mask, where The Maltese Falcon first appeared in serial episodes starting in September, 1929. Remember that date.
But here’s the thing: we wouldn’t be reading The Maltese Falcon for the Big Read here in Hopkinsville, and they wouldn’t also have chosen it for the Big Read elsewhere—in Massachusetts and Illinois and Kansas and California, all across the country—if all there was here was a new kind of detective fiction. There is more here. In 1998 the Modern Library put The Maltese Falcon on its list of the best novels of the 20th century. It’s not just a good mystery; it’s a great novel. And it’s distinctively American. What people have been saying for a long time now is that The Maltese Falcon is not just an interesting development in detective fiction; it is in fact one of the great American novels of the first half of the twentieth century.
I want to talk about that—about what makes it an American classic. But first I want to go back to Hammett’s originality as a detective writer, to this hard-boiled business. Then I want to look at the early popularity of the book during the Depression and the movies made from it during its first ten years. All of these things are connected, so it may seem I’m repeating myself about those features that make it a new kind of mystery, that insured its appeal during the Depression, and that make it an enduring American classic.
Now exactly what changed in the mystery with Sam Spade and his world? Well, the detective before Spade was always some variation on Sherlock Holmes. You remember how Sherlock Holmes works, right? He shows up at the murder scene and pulls out his magnifying glass. He examines something his sidekick Dr. Watson can’t even see. Then he pulls out a measuring tape and measures the distance between two marks. Watson can’t see them either. Finally he straightens up and announces that the murderer was a left-handed streetcar conductor, six feet tall, with a slight limp and a bad cold, who smokes Trichinopoly cigars.
The theory behind this sort of story is that the world is readable like a book because everything leaves traces. Even thoughts leave marks; there are a couple of places in the Sherlock Holmes stories where Holmes interrupts Watson’s daydreaming and tells him exactly what he’s thinking. Even thoughts leave marks in the sense that when you’re thinking you look at particular things, your expression changes, and so on. The world gives up its secrets to the careful observer.
What is the most distinctive thing about Sam Spade’s world? Its deception. Everybody lies. Even his client lies to him. Sherlock Holmes’s clients never lied. They might not have understood the meaning of what they told him, but they always told the truth. Brigid Wonderly Leblanc O’Shaughnessy, on the other hand, lies about nearly everything, lies as soon as she opens her mouth. She makes up a name, makes up a sister, makes up a story. And it is no surprise to Spade. “Oh, we didn’t believe your story,” he says to O’Shaughnessy, “we believed your two hundred dollars.” It’s a deceptive world in which the client lies, the detective lies, everybody lies. Even physical objects participate in the deception: the black bird is not what it has promised to be.
It’s also a very physical world. The city of San Francisco is present physically in Hammett’s pages. We could draw a map of the Stockton Street overpass area where Miles Archer is murdered from the description. And the interiors of hotel lobbies, offices and bedrooms are all described in enough detail that we can visualize them. And we learn enough detail about Spade’s rolling a cigarette from Bull Durham tobacco, and later of Effie Perine’s doing it for him, that it amounts to a primer on rolling your own.
The physicality extends to the detective’s method. Where Sherlock Holmes observes, Sam Spade bumps up against his world. Hard-boiled detective work is a contact sport. Sam Spade kisses Iva Archer, hugs Effie Perine, and sleeps with Brigid O’Shaughnessy. He is poked and pushed and eventually punched by Lieutenant Dundy, hits Joel Cairo in the face, is drugged by Casper Gutman and kicked in the head by Wilmer, the gunsel, whom Spade has already manhandled and whom he will punch later. Actually there’s much less violence, no real fistfights, no hitting the detective over the head with a blunt object in this book—the sort of thing you get much more of in the later hard-boiled detective stories this book inspires. But there is a good deal of roughhousing and a lot of trial and error as Spade tries to figure out what is going on. He operates so much in the dark he has to keep trying to shake people up so that they’ll accidentally tell him some of the truth. “My way of learning,” says Spade, “is to heave a wild and unpredictable monkey-wrench into the machinery.”
Spade lies, too, partly by pretending to know more than he really does. He surprises Cairo with a question from nowhere about a daughter; he throws Cairo’s name at Brigid, and he generally pretends to know more than he really does about how to get hold of the falcon.
What is required to survive in Spade’s world is not great powers of observation, though it turns out that he does observe a great deal. In a world of deception and violence, the detective needs a hard shell and the endurance to survive. He is alone in the world; he has no sidekick. He doesn’t even have a partner after the first chapter.
The hard-boiled detective has a code that goes with the job. “When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it,” he says, and he’s willing to make a personal sacrifice to follow the code. At the same time, the code seems to be pretty flexible, allowing him with no strain on his conscience to take money from various people and to take advantage of everyone’s greed and desire for the big money the statue seems to promise them. But the extent to which he is corruptible by money is left ambiguous. “Don’t be too sure I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be,” he says, “That kind of reputation might be good business—bringing in high-priced jobs and making it easier to deal with the enemy.”
Spade has a peculiar relation with the police. They certainly don’t ask him to help him solve their cases, as the police often ask Sherlock Holmes. Spade has pickled pigs’ feet with Tom Polhaus, and they seem to have much in common. But the police are resentful of the free-and-easy methods of private detectives. They are constrained by the job. “We don’t like this any more than you do,” says Tom Polhaus to Spade, “but we got our work to do.” And Spade is resentful in turn, because they’re going to find someone to pin these murders on, and it just might be him. But he gets them to drink with him, an interesting moment that’s a different moment when Hammett wrote it than it is in the Bogart movie, after Prohibition has been repealed. In the book, the cops aren’t just drinking on the job’ they’re drinking Spade’s contraband Bacardi. The cops are not necessarily corrupt, but Spade has no real confidence they won’t take the easy way out and arrest him unless he finds them a “fall guy,” as he calls it. But he isn’t bothered too much by the fact that the police aren’t his friends, and he says “It’s a long while since I burst out crying because policemen didn’t like me.”
There is more ambiguity here. Spade looks like he’s willing to throw anybody at the police as a fall guy—though Wilmer is hardly an innocent. Spade looks like money is the only thing he’s interested in through most of the book. But at the end the police have the people who really did the murders. Spade gives up the thousand dollars he took from Gutman as “expenses.” Effie’s mad at him, and he still has Iva Archer to deal with.
Another aspect of the story that differs from Sherlock Holmes tales is that the puzzle is not centered or highlighted. During most of the book we are not thinking about who killed Miles Archer. It’s a dramatic moment at the end when Spade reveals that he knows who killed Miles and that he has apparently known for some time. But that’s quickly lost in the drama of what he will do about it—will he play the sap for Brigid, as he puts it. During most of the story, we’re not thinking about the murder mystery at all—we, like all the characters, are concentrated on the black bird.
Now before I talk about what makes the book an American classic, let’s just think for a minute how all of this plays in the Great Depression. Because a month after the first episode of The Maltese Falcon appeared in Black Mask magazine, the stock market crashed and the Depression began.
By the time The Maltese Falcon came out in book form in 1930, the country was beginning to feel what the Depression was really going to mean for everybody. The book went through seven editions that year, and it was very popular during the next ten years, the worst years of the Depression, until the war began in 1941.
During that time three movie versions of the book were made. The first one, in 1931, with Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels, eventually got shelved because it didn’t meet the standards of the new Motion Picture Code developed in the early 30s. The references to Wilmer and Cairo’s homosexuality presumably weren’t as subtle as they needed to be to escape the censors. The second movie, in 1936, was called Satan Met a Lady. It was a botched version of the story starring Warren William and Bette Davis, and it was so bad that Bette Davis almost broke her contract with Warner Brothers rather than make it. But it was the Depression, and even movie stars needed to pay the rent. Finally in 1941, the young screenwriter John Huston made his first movie as director, the version of The Maltese Falcon that most people are familiar with. Huston was smart enough to stick very closely to Hammett’s actual words, and he was lucky enough to achieve almost perfect casting, with Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, Sydney Greenstreet as Casper Gutman in his first film, Gladys George as Iva Archer, Lee Patrick as Effie Perine, and Ward Bond as Police Detective Tom Polhaus. At five-seven, the dark-haired and fairly slight Humphrey Bogart wasn’t exactly the six-foot, burly, blond Satan that Hammett describes in the first paragraphs of the book, but he inhabited the role so successfully that some of us can’t reread the book now without hearing Bogart saying the words we’re reading.
In the decade before that version, though, the book resonated with Depression readers. Depression America too, was a deceptive and dangerous world, where everything looked fine one day and the next day something that happened a thousand miles away in New York could take your job away. It was a hard world physically, when jobs assumed great importance and people who had jobs were willing to do a lot just to keep them.
In the story, trust is talked about often, and almost everyone breaks trust at one point or another. The country is thinking about trust a lot, and FDR makes it explicit that the economic system of the country depends on trust and people have to have it, even if it has once been betrayed.
A lot of Americans changed their attitudes about the police during this time, especially those people rousted by cops because they were on the streets or because they were jumping trains to find work elsewhere or just to be on the move.
And finally there was that dream of striking it rich somehow, anyhow. A pipe dream, of course, of getting to easy street, of making it to The Big Rock-Candy Mountain. For most people it was a dream as futile as Casper Gutman’s 17-year quest for the unimaginably valuable falcon. The black bird, is, in a line that Hammett didn’t write but John Huston brilliantly added, quoting Shakespeare, “the stuff that dreams are made of.” (Hammett does quote Shakespeare at least once, when Cairo is trying to console Wilmer and Wilmer is rejecting Cairo’s advances, Spade sarcastically comments, “The course of true love” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where one of the lovers says he’s heard that “The course of true love never did run smooth.”
This is an edition of the five novels completed by Hammett during his lifetime. The imprint is The Library of America. “The Library of America,” to quote Wikipedia, “is a nonprofit publisher of classic American literature.” The publisher operates with seed money from the National Endowment for the Humanities and private foundations, and it calls this series “Literary Classics of the United States.” Basically being published in The Library of America amounts to canonization; you make it and you are part of the American canon of greats. The publisher put his money where his mouth is to manufacture this book. It’s one thing for the Modern Library to call The Maltese Falcon one of the best books of the twentieth century; it’s another for The Library of America to put up the dough to make a fine hardback edition. “Oh, we didn’t believe your list…we believed your money.” So what is it that makes it an American classic?
One of the reasons The Maltese Falcon is a classic is its style. You probably have a favorite quote from Spade’s wisecracking. Mine is “It’s a long while since I burst out crying because policemen didn’t like me.” Everyone in the book, not just Spade, has a distinctive style of speaking and can be recognized from a short quote. Think about Gutman’s “By Gad, sir…” and Cairo’s mincing speech, obviously being translated from his native language as he talks, and Tom Polhaus’s bluff “Aw, c’mon, Sam.” This command of colloquial speech is the mark of great writers like Mark Twain. There is also a sparseness to the description in the book that has been compared to Hemingway’s style, and in fact Hemingway was developing his style at the same time in the twenties. But Hammett isn’t just spare with words; he wants the right one and sometimes surprises you with it. Let me read a few lines of the description of Captain Jacobi of La Paloma as he staggers into Spade’s office with a package containing the black bird. (p. 528)
Hammett’s plot is impeccable: he keeps our minds off the murder mystery for most of the book until we see that Spade must have figured it out fairly early on. The struggle for the falcon, the promise of unmeasurable riches, occupies the center of the book, and the struggle is peopled with characters as odd and memorable as you could wish for. Hammett describes each with a few lines as he introduces them; then he lets their dialogue and their actions develop them.
But, you know, the plot is a fantasy, and the characters are mostly very strange, too. Is there any reason to make that ship’s captain seven feet tall? The style helps make us believe people talk this way, even if they don’t. Finally, though, I think what makes the book an American classic is the combination of features that I’ve already mentioned that resonate with Americans, and not just Depression-era Americans, but people today as well.
Let’s start with the police. Sam’s dealing with them reflects some real things about our own relation with police. Americans have always been somewhat suspicious of the police. We know that there’s always the possibility of corruption, but even without corruption there can be abuse of power. If a District Attorney or a police captain believes someone is guilty, we won’t be surprised if they go right to the edge of the rules to try to convict. We as a people don’t like authority. We started by rejecting the idea of anyone having a divine right to rule us. Then we built a government in which each of the three parts is supposed to watch the other two carefully and keep them honest.
Spade is an individualist without a sidekick, without a confidant, without a partner after the first chapter. He’s the guy real detectives want to be, like the ones who worked alongside Hammett at the Pinkerton Detective Agency. And yet, he’s not a renegade or a Rambo. He knows the system and he works it. He has a lawyer. He knows how to talk to a District Attorney. He knows what his job is.
The job in America is a moral arena. Novelists like William Dean Howells and Sinclair Lewis explored in their books the question whether success in business meant disregard for moral niceties. But the question has to be asked about jobs in general. Do you have to step on people to get to the top? Do you have to step on people to get to the end of the day? The book makes us think about the job. Of course, the bad guys don’t have jobs at all and don’t want them—Cairo, Gutman, Wilmer. But others in the book do, and the laziness of the police—or their eagerness to find somebody to pin the crime on—the ambition of the District Attorney, and the desire of Spade to be good at his job—do these things mean people are inevitably going to get hurt? The Maltese Falcon is an entertaining way to play out some of those moral questions
And then there is the black bird itself—The Maltese Falcon. Of course, there’s nothing American about the Knights of Malta, the Crusades, or Charles V and the Holy Roman Empire. But the promise of wealth, certainly the hope of prosperity is distinctly American. It is one of the reasons people come here—the Polhauses from northern Europe, the Dundys and the O’Shaughnessys from Ireland, and so on. In this book the promise of great wealth comes from the east via the Englishman Gutman, the Knights of Malta, and the “Levantine” Cairo, i. e., he’s somewhere from the eastern Mediterranean. The Americans, Wilmer and O’Shaughnessy and Spade himself, for a while, latch on pretty tight to the idea of fantastic wealth. The bird is the big prize, the ultimate Powerball, the lottery so rich no one seems to know its limits, though Gutman says the lower limit is two million. A 1930 dollar would have bought you fifty times what one buys now, so the bird would be worth at least a hundred million—in other words, lottery-size money. But it isn’t. It’s worthless.
Well, not completely worthless. While it’s around, the black bird is a touchstone that shows us what each of the characters is like. Some might say that’s the way money works for Americans—shows you what they’re really like.
Let me make just two more points about why I think the book still appeals, and then we’ll have some time for questions. One is about the very clear narrative structure of the book. The Maltese Falcon is very simply organized into scenes. One of the reasons Huston’s movie was so successful was that he didn’t alter the book’s basic shape. It’s as if the book is already a screenplay. Let me show you what I mean by looking at the first two scenes of the book and the movie. The first scene is a well-lighted daytime scene in Spade’s office. The second scene begins in darkness:
A telephone bell rang in darkness. When it had rung three times bed-springs creaked, fingers fumbled on wood, something small and hard thudded on a carpeted floor, the springs creaked again, and a man’s voice said:
“Hello….Yes, speaking….Dead?...Yes….Fifteen minutes. Thanks.”
Hammett tells you exactly how to film the scene, and Huston does it. The result is a very simple, very modern-seeming way of telling the story.
Another feature that seems modern is Spade’s very coldly realistic, unromantic view of his own job and life. A third of the way through, the book, Spade tells O’Shaughnessy about a man he searched for in Washington and Oregon, a man named Flitcraft, who abandoned his wife and children to start a completely new life when a construction beam fell near him and he realized how quickly and arbitrarily he could have been killed. The incident, he felt, "had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works," showing him that it was not the "clean orderly sane responsible affair" he had thought but "that men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them." The part Spade likes best is that when nothing further happened of this revelatory or remarkable sort, Flitcraft settled into the same middle-class suburban life he had left behind. Spade's perspective takes in the whole picture, including the fact that life can be an affair where one dies "at haphazard like that"--especially if one goes seeking danger as a detective--but is still, even for the detective, often banal and predictable. Spade says he got it—what made Flitcraft act the way he did—but Flitcraft’s wife never understood, naturally. Brigid doesn’t get it either. But he’s telling her that when beams and fabulous birds and beautiful liars stop dropping into his life, he’s still going to be a detective. This means ultimately she’s going to jail. When Effie asks him at the end how he could do that, his answer is, “Your Sam’s a detective.”