Editor's note: Richard Layman is the author of Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett and co-editor (with Hammett's granddaughter, Julie M. Rivett) of Jo Hammett's Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers. He also edited Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon: A Documentary Volume. Layman lives in Columbia, South Carolina, and is vice president of Bruccoli Clark Layman Inc., which produces reference works in literary and social history. He is scheduled to deliver the following address at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., tomorrow, February 15. But he was generous enough to let January Magazine post his speech a day in advance, to help commemorate the 75th anniversary of The Maltese Falcon's publication in book form.
Happy Valentine's Day. It is a great honor to be invited here to commemorate the diamond anniversary of The Maltese Falcon. The nation's capital is an altogether appropriate place to begin celebrating Dashiell Hammett's most famous work.
Hammett was born about 60 miles southeast of here in southern Maryland; he contracted Spanish influenza that affected the course of his life at Camp Mead, Maryland, about 25 miles north. And, a veteran of the two world wars, he is buried in Arlington Cemetery.
Then there is the Library of Congress. A serious researcher is inevitably drawn here. In the Manuscript Reading Room, you can examine the Pinkerton National Detective Agency archives, the existing files of the agency where Hammett worked as an operative before he began writing fiction and where he gathered his material. In that archive, there are financial ledgers, work schedules and case files (not including Hammett's, I am sorry to say), that provide the best documentation available for determining how the business of the agency was conducted. There is also a statement of general operating policies, dated 1 June 1921, found in the Flood Building in San Francisco, where that city's Pinkerton office was located. Hammett worked there in June 1921. Among other matters, the document describes the agency's interest in apprehending jewel thieves, who were the subjects of at least two cases Hammett investigated in San Francisco. And, of course, the theft of a jeweled falcon is the plot situation that Hammett used in his best-known novel.
In Rare Books and Special Collections, there are other Hammett treasures. Seventy-five years ago yesterday, The Maltese Falcon was published by Alfred A. Knopf. The novel had first appeared in five monthly installments, between September 1929 and January 1930, in Black Mask, a popular pulp magazine that promised "Western, Detective, and Adventure Stories." Black Mask, which was sold for 20 cents then, was printed on highly acidic pulp paper that oxidizes over time. Today it is difficult to find any copy of Black Mask from Hammett's time, and when you do, the pages are brittle and most often tend to chip off in your hand -- if you are allowed to turn the pages. Only two complete runs of Black Mask, from its first issue in 1920 to its last in 1956, are known to exist. One is in private hands and is rumored to be for sale. Word is that it can be had for a price in the low six figures. The other is in this great library. Only seven other libraries report even partial holdings to the OCLC [Online Computer Library Center], and those holdings, with the exception of UCLA's, are scant. The five issues of Black Mask that include the serialized Maltese Falcon are on sale by a rare book dealer now for $12,500.
Those issues of Black Mask are not simply collectors' items. Hammett submitted The Maltese Falcon to Alfred A. Knopf, who had published his first two books, both in 1929, with the admonition to go easy on the copyediting. He knew what he was doing, he said. Hammett wanted to get his third book right. It was a departure work for him, his attempt to break away from the formulas of pulp fiction to create a work with serious literary value. There are over 2,000 variants between the Black Mask and the Knopf texts. The majority of the variants can be attributed to copyediting -- despite Hammett's plea. But there are also many substantive changes made to sharpen the prose. Those changes can only be discovered by collating the Black Mask and Knopf texts, the only authorial texts of The Maltese Falcon. You can do that in this building.
Moreover, The Maltese Falcon is best understood in context. A serious scholar needs to know not only how Hammett edited his novel for book publication, but what the competition was -- what else was published in the issues of Black Mask that serialized the novel and how editor Joseph T. Shaw presented the serialization. The answer to the first question is that Horace McCoy, Erle Stanley Gardner and Raoul Whitfield, none of whom had yet attempted a novel, appeared in those issues, along with a handful of writers whose reputations did not outlast them. And in each issue, at least one and usually three complete novelettes were offered, indicating Shaw's emphasis on longer works. The answer to the second question is equally interesting. Hammett got the entire front cover of the Black Mask that included the opening chapters of The Maltese Falcon. And in his teaser note for the conclusion, Shaw wrote that he had read the novel installment by installment, just as other readers had, and that "In all my experience I have never read a story as intense, as gripping, as powerful as this last installment. It is a magnificent piece of writing." The Black Mask is as valuable to scholars as it is to collectors.
And, of course, the rare first edition of the novel in dust jacket is here. Alfred A. Knopf initially sold the book for $2.00. Over the next year the price was raised to $2.50, then lowered again. In 1930 and 1931, Knopf sold 10,086 copies, a respectable sale at the beginning of the Great Depression but a disappointment to Mr. Knopf. By contrast, Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, published by Scribner's in September 1929, sold over 79,000 copies by the time The Maltese Falcon appeared. Knopf said the poor sales were due to the word "falcon" in the title, because customers weren't sure how to pronounce it and were embarrassed to ask for it by name.
He might be gratified to know that a copy in a fine first-printing dust jacket is worth something in the neighborhood of $65,000 today, and a dealer in California has offered one for twice that amount -- and sold it, I am told. I cannot think of any Knopf publication worth more on the rare-book market. A fine copy in dust jacket of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, also published in 1930 and in probably about the same number of copies, can be had for about $15,000; A first-issue of A Farewell to Arms in jacket costs a little less.
Book collectors and rare-book dealers are a rare breed, who operate under rules that don't always have much to do with the literary content of a book. They do, however, tend to reflect the cultural impact of a publication. A major reason for the high prices of The Maltese Falcon -- which brings far higher prices than Hammett's other novels -- is that his third novel has burrowed its way into our cultural awareness.
Stop someone on the street and ask if he or she is familiar with The Maltese Falcon and, more often than not, you will trigger a spark of recognition. You will probably find yourself discussing Humphrey Bogart before the conversation proceeds very far. The point is that The Maltese Falcon is clearly an element in our cultural vocabulary, even if the definition is vague. In his New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, E.D. Hirsch attempts to provide a guide to what he regards as common knowledge among educated people. In his section on all of literature in English, he includes 102 writers. Hammett is among them -- one of only four writers of detective fiction. The others are Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle and Raymond Chandler. Professor Hirsch identifies Hammett as the author of finely crafted detective fiction who wrote The Maltese Falcon -- which was made into a movie starring Bogart.
In fact, the novel was the basis for two movies in the 1930s before the classic in 1941. The first Maltese Falcon was well received upon its release in 1931. Directed by Roy del Ruth, and starring Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels, the movie was judged by the New York Times reviewer to be a faithful rendition of the original. He was right. Ricardo Cortez is no Sam Spade, but Bebe Daniels is a very convincing Brigid. The movie is an interesting example of a pre-code Hollywood production. It shows a far sexier relationship between Sam Spade and Brigid, and between Spade and Iva Archer, than the censors are would allow in the later versions.
Five years later Hal Wallis, executive producer at Warner Brothers, wrote a memo to his new production chief, Harry Joe Brown, suggesting that he read Hammett's novel, because Wallis thought they could get another screenplay out of it. By then Hammett had become a celebrity in Hollywood, largely due to the success of his novel The Thin Man, published in 1934, and the very successful movie adaptation released that year by MGM. That studio signed Hammett to a screenwriting contract, and in 1936 he provided the original story for a successful sequel, After the Thin Man. Warner wanted to get whatever benefit it could from the Hammett property it owned. The result was a thoroughly silly movie released in 1936, starring Bette Davis and Warren William, called Satan Met a Lady, that attempted to turn The Maltese Falcon into a light comedy. The New York Times called it "a farrago of nonsense."
Then, in 1941, came John Huston, who had the dialogue from Hammett's novel typed and called it his first screenplay. George Raft was the studio's first choice for Spade, and Olivia De Havilland, followed by Loretta Young, Rita Hayworth and Geraldine Fitzgerald were the top candidates for Brigid. Mary Astor won the part -- maybe because her off-stage behavior seemed in keeping with Brigid's promiscuous character. The movie was nominated for three Academy Awards. It was nominated for Best Picture, along with Citizen Kane and Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes, all of which lost out to How Green Was My Valley. Sydney Greenstreet, who played Gutman, was nominated as Best Supporting Actor. He and Walter Brennan, from Sergeant York, lost to Donald Crisp, again in How Green Was My Valley. And John Huston was nominated for Best Screenplay. He and Lillian Hellman lost out to Sidney Buchman, for Here Comes Mr. Jordan.
The success of the 1941 movie propelled The Maltese Falcon into the heart of American culture. The reprint company Grosset & Dunlap sold about 25,000 copies of the book in the 1940s. The Modern Library sold about 27,000 copies during the decade. A group called Reader's League of America distributed 41,000 copies free to servicemen through the Red Cross. In 1944, Pocket Books published the first paperback edition of the novel, which sold 650,000 copies in the first three years of publication. And in 1946, King Features Syndicate published a comic-book version that sold 300,000 copies.
From 1946 to 1951, first CBS and then NBC broadcast a very popular weekly radio serial, "The Adventures of Sam Spade," with Howard Duff supplying Spade's voice. The show was sponsored by Wildroot Cream Oil Hair Tonic, which ran a widely distributed series of newspaper comic-strip advertisements in which Spade, in the space of eight frames, accepted a case and solved a mystery, always involving hair cream. In 1951, a forlorn-looking Humphrey Bogart lookalike posed as Spade for Gordon's Gin ads. The early rock-n-roll band The Coasters sang about Spade in their 1957 hit song "Searchin'," about the determined hunt for a lover. In 1969, Rowan and Martin, who developed Laugh-In, the popular television series, made a movie called The Maltese Bippy that had nothing whatsoever aside from its title to do with Hammett's novel. And in 1975, with Lillian Hellman's blessing, George Segal played Sam Spade Jr. in The Black Bird, a forgettable comedy portraying Spade's son that played off John Huston's masterpiece. There is now a piece of anti-spam software, a designer handbag, a computer game and a professional wrestler -- all named Sam Spade. In Hamilton, Montana, you will find a landscaper who calls himself Sam's Spade. Hammett, his most famous work and his characters have taken on a meaning of their own in America.
And there is still the book. As Sam Spade says to Gutman, "Let's talk about the black bird." The Maltese Falcon is the most successful early novel of the hard-boiled detective school, that violent subgenre characterized by a down-and-out detective who is nihilistic, hard-drinking and a loner. The typical hard-boiled hero struggles to maintain his integrity within a corrupt society. And, because it's the right thing to do, he comes to the aid of helpless crime victims, prevailing not through his intellectual powers but by a combination of toughness -- he usually endures a beating or two -- skillful violence and street smarts. He is a victim of circumstance, too uncompromising to be successful. His environment is the rough streets of America, where he makes his way among desperate, ruthless, greedy crooks because he is tougher than they are.
The hard-boiled protagonist is typically what is called a code hero -- that is, in the absence of reliable moral guidance from traditional social institutions, he follows rules of his own making that are most often results-oriented. Traditional hard-boiled detective fiction, particularly of Hammett's era, is politically ultraconservative, even primitive. The end justifies the means; due process means that crooks get what is coming to them, without regard for law enforcement and the judiciary. Every man for himself is the rule.
The Maltese Falcon is undeniably a hard-boiled novel, and arguably the most distinguished example. Yet it hardly adheres to the hard-boiled formula. Sam Spade is far from down and out. He maintains an office in the high-rent district; he is known, and grudgingly, for his success; he dresses well and lives well. It is safe to assume that Spade knows the seedy parts of San Francisco, but, for the most part, he stays out of them in The Maltese Falcon. He drinks in the best bars, eats in tony restaurants and meets his clients -- and antagonists -- in the most expensive hotels and apartments.
Nihilism isn't his cup of tea. He is a pragmatist in the classical sense -- a man sophisticated enough to understand and philosophize about the nature of his job. He sees his job as a search for truth, and once the truth of a matter is established, he applies a set of simple principles.
Spade does not isolate himself socially, nor does he flout the law -- except when he has to. On the contrary, his code has at its root an obligation to the basic laws of society. A primary theme of the novel is that the privilege of living in a place carries with it an obligation -- a tribute of the sort paid with the original Maltese falcon by the Hospitallers of St. John to Charles the V of Spain in the 16th century. Charles V allowed the Hospitallers the use of islands off the coast of Italy for their good works, and he asked "rent" of one falcon annually. Spade paid his "rent" to the powers in San Francisco four centuries later by handing over a gang of crooks to the authorities.
And while Spade is plenty tough in a fight, he would rather avoid one, recognizing that it is more effective to outthink the bad guys than to outshoot them. There are four murders in The Maltese Falcon, but they are all committed offstage. The only violent scenes are those in which Spade disarms Cairo in his office, and that ends with the tough guy having a gun turned on him by an affected homosexual; when Spade disarms Wilmer, a scene more comic than violent; when Wilmer kicks Spade in the head after he is drugged; and when Captain Jacoby, shot offstage, dies in Spade's office. The other scenes involving the threat of violence are anything but graphic.
So what makes The Maltese Falcon hard-boiled? The tough-minded character of Sam Spade is one answer. A non-judgmental narrative voice is another. A sprinkling of realistically portrayed street-tough characters is still another. And there is a femme fatale, who skillfully uses dangerous weapons, most notably her sex appeal.
The Maltese Falcon is a novel that adopted modern values -- social realism described with painstaking accuracy, a pragmatic attitude toward life and a depiction of morality without reference to social institutions. The Maltese Falcon was a marked departure from the pulp fiction in Black Mask. It had a closer relationship with the works of Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London and Hemingway. For Hammett, The Maltese Falcon was a brand-new way of presenting characters, plot situations and themes he had been experimenting with since he began writing fiction seven years earlier.
The Maltese Falcon was Hammett's attempt to break out of the mold of hard-boiled pulp fiction that he had helped to form and that he had used -- and sometimes misused -- amply during his apprenticeship as a short-story writer. Despite his reliance on Black Mask magazine from the beginning of his career as a fiction writer, Hammett had a condescending attitude toward the pulps and genre fiction. In August 1924, less than two years after his first published story, Hammett wrote a disingenuous letter to Philip Cody, the editor of Black Mask whom Hammett despised. After Cody rejected one of his stories. Hammett wrote: "If I stick to the stuff I want to write -- the stuff I enjoy writing -- I can make a go of it, but when I try to grind out a yarn because I think there is a market for it, I flop. Whenever, from now on, I get hold of a story that fits my sleuth, I shall put him to work, but I'm through trying to run him on a schedule." He was kidding himself -- or Cody, at least. In the six months before that letter, he published seven stories, mostly in Black Mask; in the six months afterward, he published six stories, including those rejected by Black Mask, in four different pulps. And while he wrote some of his best short stories for Black Mask in the next two years, he also wrote some of his worst. His contempt for Cody increased and he finally broke with the magazine in a dispute about payment. He referred to his early Black Mask stories as junk.
So how did Hammett come to the conclusion that he could turn the material he referred to as junk into serious literature? The answer to this question involves speculation that ought to make any biographer uneasy. We know these facts: Hammett was a high-school dropout, who took a few months of what were apparently Business English courses in the early 20s at a private school in San Francisco. We know that he was poor -- nearly destitute in the early 1920s. His wife, trained as a nurse, couldn't work after their first child was born, which occurred about seven months after their marriage. Hammett was all but bedfast much of the time, and his primary source of income was disability payments, which fluctuated as his condition was re-evaluated. He saw one means of supplementary income, and that was writing. He had pretensions to publication in the slicks, but his early efforts were judged slight by East Coast editors, and he was referred to pulps. At the beginning he could make about $25 per story written for Black Mask, which in 1923 was about enough to pay the family grocery bill for a month. For a few years he got by, then, late in 1925, his wife became pregnant with their second daughter. Within months, Hammett, demanding more money for his stories, brought his festering argument with Cody to a head. He lost and quit angrily. An attempt to enter the business world and to earn a salary ended when his health worsened and he collapsed at work. His family couldn't live with him because he was judged to be tubercular and contagious, so he had to rent another apartment, and feed another mouth. It was a desperate situation. He fell back on the best source of income he knew with renewed motivation.
The story is a bit more complicated, though. Late in 1926, a new editor, Joseph Shaw, came to Black Mask, having never read an issue. He had new ideas, which included promoting star authors and publishing longer works. When he reviewed the work of writers from past issues, he decided that Hammett was one of the authors he would bet on. Hammett needed Shaw as much as Shaw needed him, so when the invitation came to write for Black Mask again at an increased rate, Hammett jumped at the opportunity. He began writing stories twice the length of his previous works, and he began writing stories that had structural links between them. Shaw announced in January 1927 that after nearly a year's absence, Hammett was returning to Black Mask the following month. The new story was "The Big Knockover," followed three months later by the sequel, "$106,000 Blood Money." Hammett was not only back, his enthusiasm for his work was back. In February 1928, the month the last of his four-part serialized novel Poisonville was published in Black Mask, Hammett submitted the novel to Knopf, no doubt with Shaw's encouragement. It was eagerly accepted for publication as Red Harvest the next year, under a three-book contract.
Hammett was lucky. Knopf had published the odd mystery since 1920, and had recently decided to devote more attention to the genre. In Hammett, Blanche Knopf, Alfred's wife, who edited the Borzoi mysteries, saw an author the firm could publish with pride. He was its first hard-boiled author. Red Harvest sold well, and Hammett, for his part, reacted characteristically: he took advantage of the situation. His second novel, The Dain Curse, was his weakest. It was a hastily pasted-together work of four episodes that best qualifies as a novel by being published in book form under a single title. He later called it "a silly story." When Red Harvest was accepted by Knopf, Hammett had set himself the goal of writing 5,000 words a day, and he was still writing with a pulp story-writer's mindset. His first two novels, both serialized in four parts in Black Mask magazine, were action-filled stories, stitched together for continuity, Red Harvest more successfully than The Dain Curse. Then Hammett determined to devote himself fully to a profession as a novelist. He was again emboldened by the encouragement of Joseph Shaw, remarkable chiefly for his coach-like ability to inspire writers to their best; and he was certainly driven by the necessity to provide for his wife and two daughters.
Some force encouraged Hammett to be more ambitious. Maybe it was that his health was improving; maybe it was Shaw's support; maybe it was the influence of one of his several lovers, at least one of whom was also a writer. Certainly, wide reading and his interest in literary criticism had a cumulative effect. In the mid-1920s he wrote an unpublished review of Upton Sinclair's Mammonart, with a reference to Keats' "Ode on Melancholy," and he wrote a review for The Forum of Joseph Hergesheimer's Balisand. Then in 1927, he became the very-hard-to-please book reviewer of mystery fiction for The Saturday Review of Literature. Hammett was reading the work of other mystery writers critically, and it is clear by the tenor of his comments that he was convinced he could do better. Of S.S. Van Dine's Philo Vance, Hammett wrote: "his conversational manner is that of a high school girl who has been studying the foreign words and phrases in the back of her dictionary." He says of a collection of J.S. Fletcher stories, "There's no especial reason for anyone's reading any of them." He ended one review-column of now-forgotten novels saying, "there isn't a credible character in any of these three books." Of Carolyn Wells he wrote: "The author of 'All at Sea' has written something in the neighborhood of a couple of dozen detective stories, all conscientiously in accordance with the formula adopted by the International Detective Story Writers' Convention at Geneva in 1904. One should expect that by now she would have learned to do the trick expertly. She hasn't."
The hard evidence that survives of Hammett's ambition is this letter, written to Blanche Knopf in the month after the last installment of Red Harvest had appeared in Black Mask:
20 March 1928
Though The Maltese Falcon is a long way from a stream-of-consciousness novel, it is clearly the work he was referring to in this letter. The novel was completed in fall 1928 -- a little behind schedule, as was Hammett's habit -- and it employed what was for him a radical new narrative form: restricted third-person. Hammett's first two novels and most of his short stories are in first-person narration from the point of view of a series detective. This time, he created a new detective with no apparent intention of turning him into a series character -- despite the fact that he later wrote a couple of Sam Spade short stories for quick money.
By summer 1928, when he seems to have begun working on The Maltese Falcon, Hammett had studied serious literature and the qualities that separated it from ordinary writing. He came to one conclusion: it is hard to find a piece of serious writing that uses a series character. So he abandoned the Continental Op for his third novel. With The Maltese Falcon, he adopted a more sophisticated narrative voice that suggests a most unlikely influence -- Henry James, regarded as the master of third-person-limited narration. Hammett was certainly familiar with James. He refers to The Turn of the Screw in his 1931 introduction to the anthology Creeps by Night. Diane Johnson reports that James Benet, son of poet William Rose Benet (also an editor at The Saturday Review), heard Hammett discuss James in impressive detail, and William F. Nolan says that James Thurber claimed Hammett told him that The Maltese Falcon was influenced by James' The Wings of the Dove -- which is a hard idea to swallow. There is no other evidence that Hammett read James' 1888 essay "The Art of Fiction" -- except that he seems to have taken its lessons to heart, especially James' remarks about realism, character development, the limitless subjects of fiction and the dictum that a good writer has to be interesting.
We know that while he was contemplating The Maltese Falcon, Hammett was reading philosophy, an interest of his for over a decade by that time. He even tried his hand at his own philosophical essay, which draws heavily on the 19th-century American pragmatists. He had clearly read Charles Sander Peirce, whose name he appropriated, with only a minor change -- Peirce to Pierce -- for the pseudonym of Flitcraft in the famous fable Spade tells Brigid after he learns she has taken on an assumed identity for at least the second time. Indeed, Peirce's philosophy is at the heart of The Maltese Falcon.
Peirce was a brilliant philosopher, admired in his circle of friends, who included William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and John Dewey. He was interested in problems of interpreting perception and in systematic approaches to the phenomenon of random occurrence. For Peirce, the universe operated according to sets of triads. The most basic triad involved these elements: first was potential; second was action; and third was the formulation of laws, arrived at by observing the action. Actions are habitual -- that is, given the same set of actions and circumstances, the results will be the same almost every time. There will be random exceptions, but they are so rare, they can be disregarded. Laws of science, and nature, and behavior, are based on the observation over time of habits.
In the case of The Maltese Falcon, Peirce's basic triad might be expressed in terms of Brigid's first appearance, which presented a set of potentialities: she could be good or bad, honest or duplicitous, a delightful lover or a dangerous temptress. The second element of the triad, action, revealed her habits -- to lie, to cheat, to steal and to act without conscience. Spade then moves to the third element of the triad -- determination of the laws that govern her behavior, which are clearly enough discerned. She's no good. She's pretty, but she's no good.
But it wasn't just philosophy that interested Hammett. He was a student of history as well. Gutman's presentation of the history of the falcon reveals an impressive bit of scholarship. The references are careful and accurate and genuine. He refers to obscure works covering the history of the falcon -- in the 17th century, French historian Pierre Dan; a 1781 work by Italian historian Paulo Antonio Paoli; an 1856 work by another Italian, Domenico Carutti; a Spanish history by the Frenchman J. Delaville Le Roulx; and Lady Francis Verney's Memoirs of the Verney Family, published in English between 1892 and 1899. It is not clear exactly how Hammett got his material. He is not known to have read French, medieval or otherwise, or Italian. His references must have been gleaned from a secondary source. I have been unable to locate a simple narrative of the rental agreement between the Hospitallers of St. John and Charles V of Spain that Hammett would have had available to him with all of the detail Gutman provides. I think there must be one; but what is clear, nonetheless, is that Hammett was reading widely, carefully and thoughtfully.
All of those influences, interests, motivations coalesced late in 1928 as Hammett started writing. He went back to his earlier work and mined characters and plot situations he liked. From a 1924 story called "Who Killed Bob Teal?" he took the plot situation of a detective hired and then murdered by his client to cover up another crime. From a 1924 story, "The Girl with the Silver Eyes," he took the plot situation of a detective who falls in love with a beautiful killer, whom he must arrest. From a 1925 story called "The Gutting of Couffignal," he took a passage, tried first in "The Girl with the Silver Eyes" and attempted again, in which the detective tries to explain his motivation to a dangerously attractive murderess. From a story published in March 1925 called "The Whosis Kid," he took a tough young thug, meaner than his looks. From a January 1926 story called "The Nails in Mr. Cayterer," he took a stereotyped characterization of a homosexual. From a 1927 story called "The Main Death," he took a bulbous, affected, effeminate villain.
Hammett drew on real cases he had worked as a Pinkerton. In 1921 he'd been assigned to the Sonoma Gold Specie case, in which thieves stole $125,000 in gold coins and hid them aboard ship, hoping to retrieve the booty at the next port after San Francisco. Hammett later claimed that it was he who found the gold hidden in a ventilation pipe, though that part of his account was probably a fabrication. The Sonoma is the model for the La Paloma, the ship on which Captain Jacoby delivers the faux falcon to San Francisco, in the novel. There are elements of other cases, including the Gus Shaefer gem theft and the Fatty Arbuckle rape case, that might have had some minor influence on the novel.
That leaves Spade. Where did he come from? In the introduction to the Modern Library Maltese Falcon in 1934 -- which was, by the way the first mystery novel published under that prestigious imprint -- Hammett said, "Spade had no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I have worked with would like to have been and what quite a few of them in their cockier moments thought they approached."
I think Hammett was being sly. You have in front of you a photograph of Hammett taken in the mid-1920s. This is the first paragraph of the novel:
Samuel Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down -- from high flat temples -- in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.
Am I overreacting, or was Hammett looking in a mirror when he wrote that passage?
The next question that arises is the most basic: "So what?" I believe that The Maltese Falcon represents the coalescence of themes and characters and structural methods Hammett had been mulling over for several years before he wrote the novel. I believe his attempt at literature was based on experience and intellectual inquiry particularly impressive for a man who, having dropped out of high school, educated himself. I believe that Hammett was consciously attempting the most difficult of literary tasks -- telling an interesting story that illustrates enduring truths about the complexity of the human situation.
I believe that we are talking today about The Maltese Falcon, 75 years after its first publication, because it operates brilliantly on several levels. There is an element of romance -- even melodrama -- in the relationship of Spade and Brigid. But their relationship demonstrates the tension between sentiment, on the one hand, and rational observation on the other -- a very Peircian dilemma. The story of the Falcon alludes to a common device in gothic fiction -- the mysterious lost relic reclaimed. Hammett may well have been paying homage to Wilkie Collins, whose The Moonstone he doubtless had read, and to the fantasy novelist W.P. Shiel, whom he alludes to in "The Gutting of Coufignal." But in his novel, Hammett gives the falcon a resonating significance. It represents the false hope of unearned wealth -- a concept that had particular significance in the year of the U.S. stock market crash -- and the faux falcon that Spade turns over to the police suggests the futility of that hope. The type of rent required in Sam Spade's day was not a symbol of fealty to authority, but meaningful action to thwart those who prey on others -- those malicious few whose only interest is self interest.
The shelf life of a trade novel that does not sell to students is a few months, typically. If it is by John Grisham and stays on the bestseller lists for a year or more, the book has a longer life, but not an enduring one. To endure, a novel has to be taught; and to be taught a novel usually has to be representative or innovative. The Maltese Falcon is both. Hammett created a story and a set of characters that serve as archetypes, and in the words of Raymond Chandler, "he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seem never to have been written before." As Casper Gutman says to Joel Cairo, as he is about to make him a fall guy, "I couldn't be fonder of you if you were my own son. But, well, if you lose a son, its possible to get another. There's only one Maltese Falcon."
I am often asked about Hammett's reaction to the reception of his novel. In response to a fan letter from book reviewer Herbert Asbury, later author of The Gangs of New York, Hammett wrote, "I can't tell you how pleased I am with your verdict on The Maltese Falcon. It's the first thing I've done that was -- regardless of what faults it had -- the best work I was capable of at the time I was doing it." He goes on to say that "The Glass Key, held back by laziness, drunkenness and illness, promises to get finished somehow by the end of next week." That second sentence is the clue to one of the most significant affects of The Maltese Falcon on Hammett personally. It set a standard that was harder to meet than any he had worked under before, and it brought success he had not previously enjoyed, allowing him the money, the celebrity and the freedom to succumb to most temptations that came his way. The Maltese Falcon changed Hammett's life.
On Valentine's Day, 1930, Hammett was living in New York with writer and actress Nell Martin. He was at the top of the literary world there. He was proclaimed "Better than Hemingway" by mainstream book reviewers; he was featured as a literary celebrity by Town and Country magazine. Dorothy Parker exclaimed in The New Yorker, "I went mooning about in a daze of love [for Spade] such as I had not known for any character in literature since I encountered Sir Launcelot ..." He was a favorite subject of gossip columnists on both coasts. Movie contracts came his way. Within a year he was making $100,000 annually -- this in the worst year of the Great Depression, when the average American family lived on $800 a year. He drank heavily; he maintained house accounts at brothels, he lived in hotel suites; in California, he was driven about by a chauffeur. And within six years, he suffered a total physical and mental collapse.
By the time The Maltese Falcon was published, Hammett had mostly finished his fourth novel, The Glass Key. He wrote one other, The Thin Man, his shortest novel by far, and padded at that, then he essentially quit publishing. He worked in Hollywood as a screenwriter before his breakdown, and for the rest of his life he took an active interest in the composition and production of plays by his friend and lover Lillian Hellman. But the man who was among the most acclaimed writers of his day couldn't bring himself to fulfill his contract with Knopf for a sixth novel. His younger daughter, Jo Hammett, insists that her father didn't quit writing, he quit publishing. He began at least six novels in the 25 years after The Thin Man, but none got very far. His last, aborted attempt was published [as "Tulip"] after his death by Lillian Hellman in the collection The Big Knockover. It exists only in a fair-copy typescript, and I suspect it was heavily edited by Hellman. The story ends a little too dramatically with the sentence, "When you are tired you ought to rest, I think, and not try to fool your customers with colored bubbles."
There are no colored bubbles in The Maltese Falcon. It is the real thing. | February 2005