Today, we’re considering that mystery classic:
Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1930)
Of course, many of us are familiar with the 1941 film, starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade. However, the background and elements of Hammett’s original novel are fascinating, and worth a closer look.
Hammett’s novel is considered part of the “hard-boiled” subgenre of the detective story, characterized by a hard-drinking, cynical private eye with his own moral code, a sexy dame with lies even longer than her legs, and an emphasis on action more than contemplative deduction. The subgenre was a uniquely American creation, arising from the frontier heroes, larger-than-life loners, scoundrels and criminals of U.S. history.
Hammett’s target audience:
American literary tastes, generally, had been conditioned by the Leatherstocking tales of James Fenimore Cooper. The hero, Natty Bumppo, had moral virtue and fantastic visual powers by which he could read broken twigs and faint footprints to seek out the enemy. Rather than society’s rules, he followed his own code of ethics.
American readers were interested in frontier adventure tales, stories with a romantic interest, and stories with the residual sense of the “eye for an eye” justice of their Puritan forefathers. They avidly read stories serialized in magazines – in 1922 alone there were over 20,000 magazines published – and the magazine detective story format was emerging as a very popular medium. The enormous following of the late 19th century dime/pulps (even though the stories were rather primitive) encouraged the cheap fiction publishers of the early 20th c to promote this sort of fiction.
Some folks consider “hard-boiled” and noir interchangeable terms, but critic Otto Penzler gives a great explanation of why this isn’t the case: Noir Fiction is About Losers, Not Private Eyes.
What 1920s and ’30s San Francisco was like:
- The metropolis of the West: SF was the focal point of immigration, mining, industry, and export.
- After the Volstead Act (18th Amendment that prohibited the manufacture, transport, and sale of intoxicating beverages), the city became a major port of entry for illegal liquor; speakeasies paid off local authorities in free liquor; networks of rum-runners stretched inland to Butte, Denver, and Phoenix. Houses of prostitution flourished. San Fransiscans obviously considered Prohibition an incentive to commerce.
- The Bay area during this time attracted German and Italian immigrants, in addition to Chinese. In fact, an entire Chinese society, complete with criminal gangs, holy men and a social hierarchy, developed in a twenty-square-block area of downtown SF.
- In terms of law enforcement, corruption abounded: many of the cops, D.A.s, and city officials were either on the take, or looking to advance themselves by whatever means necessary. This mindset is a prominent part of the world of The Maltese Falcon. The private eye doesn’t dare trust anyone but himself in such a world.
Bio of Samuel Dashiell Hammett: 1894-1961
Hammett’s life was more important to his work than is usual with an author. He was the first detective (a Pinkerton) to write detective novels, and is considered the founder of the hard-boiled detective genre. His life was varied and controversial. He was friends with Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and West, and was Lillian Hellman’s lover.
- His middle name came from the French side of his mother’s family the “DeChiells,” who had been famous in France for their bravery in battle, but his upbringing was humble. Hammett was born on a run-down farm in Maryland to a struggling Irish middle-class family.
- He loved to read anything and everything, and would do so late into the night. However, he had to quit school at 15 to help support the family when his father became ill. He hated his jobs, which were mostly in the railroad and industrial fields, and never held one for any length of time.
- He became a Pinkerton operative when he was 21, and liked it. The Pinkerton’s
National Detective Agency was the largest private law enforcement agency in the U.S., founded in 1850 by Allan Pinkerton, a former Chicago policeman. He invented the trademark of his business – the unblinking eye – and its motto, “We never sleep,” which led to the shortened tag of “private eye.”
- The Pinkertons filled a gap between the federal government’s small Secret Service and the local police forces. As the nation grew more complex, the gaps grew: the Pinkertons were called upon to prevent assassinations and to solve difficult cases, especially those crossing several local jurisdictions. These are the kind of tasks the FBI performs today, but the FBI (1908) of the ‘20s didn’t really get going in terms of its mission, organization, and jurisdictional authority, until it was re-organized under J. Edgar Hoover in 1934.
- The Pinkertons were also hired by big businesses to break up the formation of unions – with varying degrees of success, as those of you familiar with the Homestead Strike of 1892 know. The Pinkertons were highly disciplined. They were on 24-hr call, were required to keep meticulous reports, and had to be able to successfully watch a house for days at a time without being detected. Their work took them all over the country: Hammett went to Idaho, Utah, Montana, and San Francisco for assignments.
- Hammett joined the Army during WWI, but became disabled with tuberculosis and was discharged. For the rest of his life, he would be plagued with respiratory problems. He also smoked and drank alot, which of course didn’t help. He worked off and on as a Pinkerton for a number of years.
- During one of his rehabilitations at a hospital, he started dating one of the nurses and got her pregnant; he married her, moved to San Francisco, and eventually they had two children but later divorced.
- After another stint as a Pinkerton in San Francisco, Hammett got sick again, and they couldn’t get by on his disability pension.
- At this point he was too ill to do the physically demanding detective work, so he began writing detective stories, and then novels. The Maltese Falcon was his most successful, and the one for which he’s best known. His Pinkerton experiences gave him a unique inside view of his detective creation. Hammett, in one edition of the novel, describes Spade as his ideal of the hard-boiled detective:
“He is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been and what quite a few of them in their cockier moments thought they approached. For your private detective does not want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander or client.”
- Hammett also wrote the Nick and Nora Charles detective series for the screen: The Thin Man (1934) and After the Thin Man (1936).
- Even with all the money he was making at the time, he couldn’t hang onto it; his drinking problem became serious and he was hospitalized at age 42.
- Hammett also became involved in Communist party activities, and was named chairman of the Committee on Election Rights, a group allied with the Communist Party.
- Somehow, he managed to join the Army again in 1942 (at age 48, with TB!). The Army was aware of his communist affiliations and kept a close eye on him.
- He was sent to jail in 1951 for refusing to testify about the Civil Rights Congress bail fund, which had helped put up bail for people arrested for Communist activities, who then turned right around and jumped bail.
- Hammett was also interrogated by the McCarthy Committee in 1953.
- He died of lung cancer in 1961. As a veteran of two wars, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Publication and response to The Maltese Falcon:
Serialized in Black Mask Magazine the year before it was published as a novel in 1930.
The third film version of The Maltese Falcon in 1941 (directed by John Huston, with the fabulous cast of Humphrey Bogart, Sidney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre) became the definitive version of the novel.
Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway praised Hammett’s story. When Gertrude Stein came back to the U.S., Hammett was the writer she wanted to meet. Eleanor Roosevelt loved the book, and wouldn’t let it be pulled from the shelves when the anti-communist movement blackballed Hammett.
Raymond Chandler said: “[Hammett] took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley; it doesn’t have to stay there forever, but it looked like a good idea to get as far as possible from Emily Post’s idea of how a well-bred debutante gnaws a chicken-wing.”
Have you read The Maltese Falcon? Do you enjoy the hard-boiled detective genre? I’d love to hear from you!
Until next time,