I’ve been named Chairman of the Wichita, Kansas Big Read.  Here’s a lecture I prepared

about Dashiell Hammett and American Crime Fiction.


In 1929 Samuel Dashiell Hammett was thirty-five years old, tubercular to the point that he was often racked by coughing spells brought on by the incessant heavy drinking and smoking he’d been pursuing for most of his adult life.  Strapped to a wife he cared for but didn’t love, and two little girls, Mary Jane and Jo, whom he loved but only from afar, he led the writing life in a tiny apartment on Eddy Street in San Francisco, with the family safely tucked away in a rented bungalow in the North Bay, where he’d sometimes go to take presents and a little money when he had it.  He’d met his wife in a Veteran’s Hospital outside Tacoma, where she was a nurse and he was being treated for tuberculosis.  Hammett pursued her, but when he was pronounced cured, he moved, only to discover that Josephine was pregnant.  Hammett did the honorable thing and the couple set up in the city of San Francisco, where they lived on his disability and what few dollars he could earn writing advertising copy for Samuel’s Jewelry store.  Later, when he sent his family to the North Bay, it was a pretext of course.  Hammett used his tuberculosis as an excuse to absent himself from his wife and children in order to pursue with relentless dedication his primary aim in life, to become a serious novelist.

In those days he was poor, preternaturally forlorn and sometimes so sick he couldn’t get out of bed after a night of drinking with his mistress, Nell Martin, a sometime-actress, law student, migrant worker and lay-about, with whom he shared dreams and ambitions that seemed to drain away at dawn like the bootleg gin they drank.  The Roaring Twenties had taught everybody that money was King and that the American Dream was strictly material in nature.  And so, he clawed away at his old Remington, turning out short stories for Black Mask, a magazine founded by H.L. Mencken, but soon sold to the editorship of Captain William T. Shaw, who liked what Hammett gave him, which was plenty of raw violence, pungent, short and melodramatic dialogue, tommy-guns and criminals with no heart.  He was part of a menagerie of writers that included Earle Stanley Gardner, Carroll John Daly, Frederick Nebel, and later, the famous Raymond Chandler.  All of these writers longed for the same thing Hammett longed for–to be released from the Grub Street world of penny-a-word doggerel into the substantial orbit of New York publishing, a longing that could only be fulfilled by writing a “real novel”, one that would sell enough to impress some publisher somewhere to print and bind the writer’s work and get it into the hands of a buying public, into libraries, and beyond that, the wildest American Dream of all, Hollywood.

Hammett actually had a couple of novels behind him, but he was nevertheless tied to Black Mask and the pulp tradition, which appealed to a limited readership of over-excited males clamoring for sublimated but obvious sex and un-sublimated and over-stimulated violence.  Where had this New Wave of pulp stories come from? After all, the genteel tradition of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was alive and well in the form of Agatha Christie, who published her first book in 1920, and the estimable Dorothy Sayers, who published her first in 1923.  These goodly ladies wrote parlor mysteries, set in the rural or suburban shires of England where class distinctions held sway and everybody enjoyed a cracking good mystery that kept one guessing until the last page, or nearly so.  The mystery in these tales served the purpose of briefly ripping the social curtain, so that some do-gooding amateur could come along and quietly put things back together again, that the village might live quietly and rightly again, and on into the future.  These parlor mysteries were fun, they were quiet, they were intimate and reliable, and one got a rosy glow from the tricks, cross-tricks, and subtle shades of observation and counter-observation.  The reader of these stories was an ultimate foil, fodder for the inductions of the detective.

Hammett and his fellow writers at Black Mask knew these traditions well.  They just came from somewhere else.  Hammett sprang from a family of tobacco farmers, petite-bourgeois merchants, and itinerant salesman, though his mother’s Maryland people had a larger pedigree.  The family moved from Maryland to Philadelphia when dad’s farm failed, then on to Baltimore, where Hammett left school at fourteen to work meaningless jobs.  He became a fierce, life-long, autodidact, devouring everything in literature he could get his hands on, including the Russians.  He was restless.  At age sixteen he became a Pinkerton man, detecting for the corporate world and sent west where labor unrest called for strikebreakers, intimidators, and shadow-men.  Living in a series of Western boarding houses, rented rooms, and hotels, Hammett managed to experience turmoil at its source, in the mining towns of Montana, where he wound up in Anaconda during one of the biggest strikes in copper-mining history.  He was on the scene when corporate goons dragged the Wobbly organizer Frank Little from his hotel, the union man so disabled from a broken leg he couldn’t get out of bed, and lynched him from a bridge, after they’d mutilated him horribly.  Hammett looked at Butte, Montana, copper’s capital, and saw corruption on a scale barely imaginable, even from somebody who hailed from the East Coast and had been around.  Senators bought and sold like jellybeans, mayors on the take, corporations that had the police force in their hip pocket, legislatures for sale to the highest bidder, that was Montana when Hammett worked as a Pinkerton man.

Living in San Francisco was little better.  The corruption of the city was less violent, but overt nonetheless, and it sickened him.  Pulp writers like Hammett lived in the milieu of Prohibition, a ready-made backdrop for the dark, melodramatic disillusionment of bossism and shakedowns.  The mayor of San Francisco, James “Sunny” Rolph, was a jolly little man who dressed flamboyantly in cutaway jackets and brash cowboy boots, and whose motto “You make a buck, I make a buck”, embraced every form of vice and political graft imaginable.  The mayor had his lackeys who did the dirty work, the McDonough brothers, who from their scrubby little office on Kearney Street, close to the Hall of Justice, supervised the nightlife and graft of the city.  They managed every prostitute on Eddy Street, knew how much gambling take went into the pockets of Russian Mike or Bones Remmer or Eddie Sahati, and supervised the plans of every burglary and safe job, taking their cut and passing a share to the bosses at City Hall. They owned a squadron of sharp lawyers, and they created and uncreated judges.  They passed county ordinances, and then amended them as the need arose.  They laundered soiled money and wrote bail bonds.  Corporations, politicians and crooks were indistinguishable.  Hammett’s cynicism about Montana turned to bitterness in San Francisco.  He was troubled by visions of a meaningless universe.  He saw bleakness in the streets.  Yet he had the soul of a poet and the heart of a romantic, always did.

All of this was very different from the good-hearted, somewhat rosy, and always reasonably genteel world of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers.

Perhaps this distinction is worth a sidebar here:  Once The Maltese Falcon hit the bookstores in February, 1930, Hollywood quickly bought up one of Hammett’s short stories called “Nightmare Town” and made a quick film, which came out in cinemas in 1931.  A synopsis of the film appeared in a June issue of The New Yorker, with a notice that the film was playing at the IFC Center on June 20-22.  What would you give to see this film, called by Fox, “City Streets”?

This atmospheric gangster classic from 1931 is based on a story by

Dashiell Hammett; it offers a terse visual translation of his prose as

well as his cold-blooded view of Prohibition-era underworld wiles.

Sylvia Sidney stars as Nan, the stepdaughter and accomplice of a

doughy but dangerous Mob middle manger called Pop (Guy Kibbee),

who bumps off a rival and lets her take the rap.  While Nan is in prison,

her formerly straight-arrow boyfriend, the Kid (Gary Cooper), a

country boy and carnival sharpshooter, lends his gunsmanship to Pop.

When Nan gets out, the kingpin (Paul Lukas) lays claim to her, and the Kid

prepares for a fight.  The director, Roubin Mamoulian, a Broadway bigshot,

boils his theatrical opulence down to lurid wit.  His glad-handing, finger-

snapping, vest-popping gangsters deal death with a smoke and a smile;

his still, chilled framings along with cinematographer Lee Garmes’s

gleaming highlights and bottomless shadows, seethe with elegant and

effortless monstrosity—Richard Brody

In 1929, though, Hammett was luckier than most of his pulp writing pals.  He’d actually found a publisher in New York who’d taken on his first two novels, Red Harvest and The Dain Curse, sturdy detective stories set in violent milieus.  Red Harvest, serialized in Black Mask as “Poisonville”, was a barely disguised version of Butte, Montana, while the “operative” was a chubby little non-entity called the Continental Op.   The Op was skillful, but anonymous.  He resorted to violence and followed the code, but he wasn’t anybody special.  The two early novels were clumsy, exciting, over-wrought, unsubtle, knife-and-gun wielding circus spectacles full of the tough-talking men and shady dames readers had come to expect in the pulps.  They were delicious in a small way, but Hammett knew they were inferior, not “real literature”, which he longed to write.  They owed something to the short, clear, and blunt dialogues of Hemingway, and to Hemingway’s tactic of allowing dialogue to reveal character outside the florid prose styles of the Victorians.  The early novels were first person, hard and technically sloppy.

And so it came to pass that in 1930 Blanche Knopf published The Maltese Falcon, which became an immediate sensation, going through seven editions and propelling Hammett straight to the big money, Hollywood and ruin.  The reviews, from The New York Times, Town and Country, and the Herald Tribune, among many others, were ecstatic.  Critics loved the bitter realism of the writing, pared down and sharp.  And they loved Sam Spade, who, unlike the fat, bald and old Continental Op, had a definite world-view and a disturbingly ambivalent character.  It was a violent story, but the murders, four of them in fact, take place off-stage; the third-person, so different from the self-explaining first person, emphasized drama, shifted it into the interior spaces of emotion and romantic depth, and allowed the dialogue to carry a heavier burden of melodrama.  And of course, the author’s name was Sam too, which set everybody to wondering about Sam Spade and whether there could be any connection between the author and his creation.

The Maltese Falcon marries Hammett’s philosophy of doom with his romantic imagination.  Close your eyes and listen:

The tippety-tap-tap and the thin bell and muffled whir of Effie Perine’s

typewriting came through the closed door.  Somewhere in a neighboring office

a power-driven machine vibrated dully.  On Spade’s desk a limp cigarette

smoldered in a brass tray filled with the remains of limp cigarettes.  Ragged

gray flakes of cigarette-ash dotted the yellow top of the desk and the green blotter

and the papers that were there.  A buff-curtained window, eight or ten inches open

let in from the court a current of air faintly scented with ammonia.  The ashes on

the desk twitched and crawled in the current.


II.        Let’s rewind ourselves from 1930-ear Prohibition in San Francisco to the muddy Industrial Revolution in Baltimore, during the 1850s.  In that dirty port city Edgar Allen Poe had been writing gothic romances, ghost stories, and tales of intrigue for some time, eking out a living publishing these, along with some poems, in journals, magazines and small-print newspapers.  He was to become famous, but only posthumously, and he died drunk, sick, and anonymous in a rainy street gutter.  Before that, though, he invented most surely the “modern” detective form, a form still in use today and one we can conveniently call classical.  Poe, in his tales like “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Mystery of Marie Roget”, crafted an intelligible format to a short-story style which would emerge during the Golden Age of mystery fiction, a style that would be perfected and popularized by Arthur Conan Doyle in his Sherlock Holmes series, and a style which came to dominate mystery writing in both Europe and the United States during Hammett’s day, and still does.  We can see its overweening influence in the television dramas of today like “CSI”, “Sherlock”, and dozens of others.  This Golden Age was reaching its apex when Hammett published his masterpiece, a book so antithetical to the acknowledged “rules” that Hammett must have consciously decided to rebel against them.

“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is a great place to begin.  Poe, in grand Victorian style, spends the first three pages of his story introducing us to the glories of “analysis”, the substructure upon which all of detection rests.  Poe categorically tells us, “As the strong man exults in his physical ability, so glories the analyst in that moral activity which disentangles.”  Indeed, Poe has us believe, the analyst, who in his tales becomes the detective, has such powers of observation that they seem intuitive, when actually they are inductive.  Ingenuity, acuity, and calculation are the hallmarks of the detective, along with his ability to pay attention to the minutest of details.  Crime, it seems, is an enigma that is solvable if only one pays close enough attention, discerns the intimate connections between facts, and draws the proper conclusions.

Having equipped his readers with a classical metaphysical notion of detection and the detective, Poe launches his readers into the story by introducing his detective, Monsieur C. August Dupin, a young gentleman of excellent family who, by a variety of unforeseeable events, has been reduced to poverty.  By courtesy of creditors he has remained in possession of his books, and lives a solitary life in comfortable but not luxurious Parisian rooms on the income from a small remnant of his patrimony.  He haunts an obscure library on the Rue Montmartre, where he is befriended by an un-named American, who becomes both metaphysical compatriot and the narrator of the tales.  Of the two, detective and narrator, Poe writes, “Our seclusion was perfect.  We admitted no visitors.  Indeed the locality of our retirement had been carefully kept secret from my own former associates; and it had been many years since Dupin had ceased to know or be known in Paris.   We existed within ourselves alone.”  And once the great Brain and Calculator C. August Dupin solved the mystery of the murders in the Rue Morgue, what became of him?  In a follow-up, “The Mystery of Marie Roget” Poe writes, “Upon the winding up of the tragedy involved in the deaths of Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter, the Chevalier dismissed the affair at once from his attention, and relapsed into his old habits of moody reverie.  Prone at all times to abstraction, I readily fell in with his humor; and continuing to occupy our chambers in the Faubourg Saint Germain, we gave the Future to the winds, and slumbered tranquilly in the Present, weaving the dull world around us into dreams.”  Poe, unbothered, or perhaps unhindered, by Baltimore, set his stories in Paris, where presumably the traditions of rational thought, of Descartes perhaps, might reign.  Unlike Hammett, he did not specialize in the here and now.

Thus, Poe invented the paradigm, in which one can readily recognize Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (though Watson’s character is altered to reflect that of his creator), Philo Vance, Nero Wolfe, and even Agatha Christie’s inimitable Hercule Poirot, whose tales of “ratiocination” are related by a third party, acting mostly as Tonto.  One key marker in tone undertaken by Poe is a first-person narration used in most of the tales of the “macabre”—like The Cask of Amontillado, a tactic that allows an all-seeing writer to assume the mantle of a real personality.  The detective in classical forms is a reasonable person of unusual ability, aloof from the ordinary world, possessed of uncanny acuity and spans of attention.  He can induce conclusions that astound his colleagues from the police, who most often defer to his powers despite his amateur status.  The detective has no pecuniary interest in the case and disdains material claims on his time.  He does get dirty sometimes, but he showers his body with the rainwater of Reason.  The world, briefly out of kilter, gets set right again, whereupon the detective flees to the sanctum of his rooms, in the case of Sherlock Holmes to play the violin and inject cocaine.  Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes isn’t much different from Poe’s Dupin.  The writing is Edwardian rather than gothic Victorian.  Dr. Watson is amiable and doesn’t share his friend’s dissipations.  But everything else is pretty much the same.

Let’s make no mistake about this classical mystery world.  The detective was chaste and the world was stripped of sex, though secret marriages and love affairs were permitted off the page, where they functioned as motives and plot devices.  Soldiering on through, the classical mystery world was ordered into a hierarchical regime that most often reflected class and social positions.  There were noblemen and their servants, country squires and their maids, professional men, clergy, clodhopping working men, scullery maids and tradesmen.  Outside it all loomed the detective like a big, unblinking eye.  Not a private eye, but a very Public Eye, the gaze of Reason.

Meanwhile, back in the Rue Morgue, the widow L’Espanaye and her youthful daughter have been horribly slaughtered in their garret apartment, where they carried on with baking and sewing to make ends meet.  The daughter has been strangled and her corpse stuffed so high up the narrow chimney that it takes four grown men to pull her lifeless body down.  The mother’s corpse, the throat so hideously slashed that her head has come off, lays on the street far below.  Most amazingly, the door to the garret is locked from the inside and all the windows are closed as well, the two highest ones nearly six stories above the street, secured with nails driven into the sash.  The witnesses agree that someone entered their rooms and committed these horrible crimes, though they disagree about who it might have been.  The apartment house is occupied by a motely group of foreign residents, Italian, Spanish, Russian, French and Dutch, each involved in trade.  They agree only that the intruder spoke in a foreign language and that two of the words cognizable were, “Mon Dieu”, a French expression of surprise or horror.

What a puzzle!  What an enigma!  What a classical mystery!  The ordered world of the apartment house in a working class neighborhood is turned upside down, unnatural and inexplicable acts have erupted into a locked room.  Amazingly, Dupin demurs from investigating the scene, preferring to read newspaper accounts, which in Paris, are particularly fulsome and numerous.  The police, despite the evidence, are baffled.  Dupin reads his newspapers and follows the investigation, a Great Brain hovering above the disordered world.  Finally, he acts to help the chief investigator, Le Bon (that is, The Good), through the offices of the Prefect of Police, Monsieur G, who once rendered Dupin a service for which he is suitably grateful.  And so, finally, C. August Dupin, Chevalier, arrives at the Rue Morgue where he carefully observes the crime scene, examines the dead daughter’s neck for fingerprints, collects a specimen of hair, and tests the windows.  Our faithful near-third person narrator then is shown by Dupin a copy of a text from Cuvier, the zoologist:  “It was a minute anatomical and generally descriptive account of the large fulvous Ourang-Outang of the East Indian Islands.  The gigantic stature, the prodigious strength and activity, the wild ferocity, and the imitate propensities of the mammalia are sufficiently well known to all.  I understood the full horrors of the murders at once.”  Then, in a room filled with witnesses, Dupin unravels the mystery, an orangutan escaped from its sailor owner, possessed of a razor and the propensity to imitate shaving, able to climb the side of the six-story building, thrust a body up a chimney, nearly sever a head and throw a body out a window, and escape the same way.  Some unusual springs in the window sash and a curiously severed nail head explain the locked room mystery.  The sailor, chastened and horrified, confirms that Dupin is correct.  The classical mystery world, temporarily bereft of Reason, returns to the status quo through the efforts of the amateur detective, who now, we presume, returns to his rooms to contemplate, meditate, and medicate.


III.       And now, let us introduce Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective.  Before and after Poe there had been mystery writers, some as famous as Wilkie Collins and even Charles Dickens.  But in 1920, Agatha Christie published her first book, leading a veritable parade of classical mystery writers who dominated American and European publishing in the 1920s and 1930s, obliterating all the competition.  Male writers like S.S. Van Dine and Ellery Queen created their own detectives, superhuman, analytical and above the fray.  But it was Agatha Christie who topped the pile, and whose work most directly contrasts with The Maltese Falcon in the late 1920s.

Take if you will Christie’s mystery titled The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, an extremely popular 1926 entry in the Hercule Poirot series, an enigma story that takes place in the ordered village of King’s Abbott, nine miles from Cranchester, where able bodied men are apt to leave the place early in life, leaving a social scene rich in unmarried ladies and retired military officers.  There are only two houses of any importance, one of them being Fernly Park, owned by a rich manufacturer, Roger Ackroyd, whose manor is a veritable upstairs-downstairs of social class, topped off by Ackroyd himself, a traditional red-faced sportsman, who supports the local cricket teams and is the “life and soul” of the village because of his support for Lad’s Clubs and Disabled Soldiers’ Homes. The village, then, is the classical universe of social harmony and economic order, where every person has his or her place, a veritable Plato’s Republic transferred to English soil. To emphasizes the social order, Christie has inserted into the text of her book a map of the Ackroyd manor house, something in the vein of the board game “Clue”, drawing room, study, entry hall, bedrooms, library and so forth.  Moroever, Christie causes an actual list of the household staff employed by Ackroyd to be printed, from head butler to scullery maid to char, a list that includes not only the names of the staff but their backgrounds, tiny slivers of their social identity neatly organized for the reader.  Into this tidy universe intrudes the dual outrages of blackmail and murder.  Who, oh who, shall right the ship of State and restore the village to its former peace and order?  Well, the answer is, of course, Hercule Poirot.

But who is Poirot?  It turns out he’s a retired French-speaking Belgian detective living anonymously.  Christie tells us that the neighborhood have been unable to find out anything about him, except that he is a foreigner.  “His name,” she has one of her characters explain, “apparently, is Mr. Porrot—a name which conveys an odd feeling of unreality.  The one thing we do know about him is that he is interested in the growing of vegetable marrows.  For those of you who don’t know, a vegetable marrow is defined as a “large, smooth-skinned, meaty variety of squash.”  And finally, the village finds out about Poirot.  “Why he’s Hercule Poirot,” one character exclaims.  “You know who I mean—the private detective.  They say he’s done the most wonderful things—just like detectives do in books.  A year ago he retired and came to live down here.  Uncle knew who he was but he promised not to tell anyone, because Mr. Poirot wanted to live quietly without being bothered by people.”  Later, after being provisionally engaged without a fee, Poirot tells the village that he doesn’t want to be paid.  “Now if I go into this, you must understand one thing clearly,” Poirot explains.  “I shall go through with it to the end.”  He is interested only in the truth, nothing less will do.

And so Poirot investigates, mostly by listening and observing.  He is a passive receiver of sense data, grinding the data in the great gray globe of his brain, spitting out at the other end a ribbon of conclusions that finally ties up the murderer in a neat bow.  Ackroyd’s throat has been cut with a rare, and really quiet marvelous antique Tunisian dagger.  Ackroyd’s body lay in a locked study; the police were required to force the door to gain entry.  According to witnesses, there was a steady cacophony of voices coming from Ackroyd’s study prior to the murder, voices which seem to confuse and contradict the official time of death in the medical officer’s reports.  Suffice it to say, Poirot reasons his way through to the truth, which comes in the next-to-last chapter, titled reasonably enough, “ And Nothing But the Truth.”  In that chapter, Christie engages another of the conventions of the classical mystery.  Poirot gathers all the suspects together in one room for his grand Platonic revelation.  Behold the truth, Poirot declares, revealing the murderer to be the narrator of the mystery, a “device” which readers considered to be a breathtaking surprise, one of the “twists” that made the novel famous.

The parallels running between The Murders in the Rue Morgue and “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” define the classical mystery, a classical form invented by Poe, perfected by Conan Doyle, and passed on to a host of writers beginning just after World War I, including the great Christie, Sayers and Van Dine, parallels which continue today in the orbit of the popular novel and the television drama.  A partial inventory of these elements include:

First, a narrative undertaken in the first person or near-third person, which lends the story a personalized touch, as though the reader were being let in on a secret coming straight from the horse’s mouth.  Dr. Watson of the Holmes stories is the gold standard, though every classical detective has his chronicler.  The detective himself, or herself, is an amateur with a naïve façade concealing a hard as nails approach to reason, induction, observation, acuity and concentration, all of which lead to an ultimate Truth.  Chaste, wise, quiet, almost anonymous, the detective harbors inner secrets, bits of which sometimes are revealed on wintry days in front of the fire.  Money does not motivate the classical detective, as he is either retired, poverty stricken, or independently wealthy.

Second, the tale itself presumes an ordered world, where social class and hierarchy outline the norms of ethical behavior.  Into this ordered world erupts a scandal, a murder, dastardly blackmail, even family secrets, all of which stink up the ready-made and send the detective into contemplation.

Third, there is an enigma or puzzle, unlocked ultimately by the rational part of our brains, the enigma usually encased in a further enigma, often the locked room or other such device.  Unlocking the puzzle and unlocking the locked room conjoin to produce the tension in the novel, a tension designed to keep the reader turning pages well into the night.  The enigma is often obscured by a babble of voices, as in “Murders in the Rue Morgue” where the babble is that of an orangutan, or “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”, where the babble turns out to be a Dictaphone left running in Ackroyd’s study, leading witnesses to believe that the voice was that of a living man.   Enigmas have objective correlatives too.  Poe’s Gold Bug is a prime example, a scarab beetle that appears like a Death’s Head, but which contains within itself a puzzle, the solution to which leads to a large treasure buried on a sandy island off the coast of South Carolina by none other than Captain Kidd himself.  Make no mistake, real or unreal, mythical, symbolic, or actual, the objective correlative of the enigma takes center stage in many classical mysteries.  Be reminded of Doyle’s masterpiece “The Hound of the Baskervilles”, where the unreal hound, hounds the puzzle.  Or, there is Christie’s Tunisian Dagger, among many others.  Many enigmas are in the nature of sleight of hand, where the author decentralizes the reader’s gaze, allowing the detective to return the reader to Reason near the last chapter of the book.

And finally, in the classical mystery, rest and peace return.  The detective flees to his rooms, to his retirement house, or better yet, simply vanishes from the page, like the Lone Ranger.  Of course, he will return again when reason requires him to return, or when the publisher offers the writer a new contract for a story which is just as good as the one that came before.


IV.       With the publication of The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett’s life would change.  The book was by no means a best seller and the legion of classical writers, especially women, were more popular.  Pulp remained badly paid, and a legion of pulp writers still dreamed of leaving the field, as Earle Stanley Gardner did in 1933 when he published his first Perry Mason novel.  Within twelve months, Hammett’s book had been bought up by Warner Brothers, which eventually produced three movie versions, the last and most famous, a film starring Humphrey Bogart and directed by John Huston, who intuitively understood the novel and adapted its dialogue almost whole cloth.  One year later, Hammett had a Hollywood deal for $15,000 and $300/wk.  Later in the decade, radio shows paid him steadily, as did reprint rights, paperbacks, and more movies, especially films based on The Thin Man and its many sequels.  Even as late as the early 1950s, Spade and Thin Man radio shows paid Hammett well, as he continued his alcoholic ways into solitude and torment.

The Maltese Falcon was a different book from Hammett’s first two novels.  Red Harvest and The Dain Curse, featured the featureless Continental Op, rotund and undistinguished, who came out guns blazing, the violence in the books front and center, almost fetishistic.  Characters drifted in and out of those books, as in real life crime.  Corrupt cops were as bad as the criminals they chased and the dialogue was all about personality, snappy patter full of patois and gutter lingo.  But the Falcon was different and Hammett knew it was different and he consciously, as an artist, strove for something new, something that inched him closer to a real American style.

Hammett wrote his book in the hard third person, a style that de-emphasized personality and delved more into character.  He reduced violence to a shadow, thereby ratcheting up the tension.   Mostly, though, Hammett stopped pretending that the detective was a superhero, instead creating a complex, fallible, hard-to-fathom human being named Sam Spade.  It is worth noting the contrast between the names August Dupin and Hercule Poirot—double syllables front and back that roll off the tongue like the name of some exotic flower and suggest foreignness, languor, reason and European flair and Hammett’s detective.  Sam Spade!  One quick, hard syllable followed by another single hard syllable, like two gunshots in the night, a name that suggests nothing flowery, exotic or dandified, nothing that would suggest violin music, musty books, or contemplation.  Instead, Sam Spade blasts off the tongue like a fist to the face.  And he’s no rotund Poirot.  Instead he is tall, dissipated, with pasty skin and a neat set of V’s down his face, a v-shape of hair on his forehead, a v-shaped beak nose, a v-set of lips, all of which produce the look of a “blond Satan”.  There’s not a shred left of Poirot, or of Bogart for that matter.

And, we’re not long into the novel before we find out that Sam Spade is no chaste amateur.  He’s a ruthless professional interested in money and out to earn what he can in a dog-eat-dog world that exhibits little rational order.  His name is on the door.  Spade is an adulterer, engaging in illicit sex with his partner’s wife behind his partner’s back.  When Iva arrives at Spade’s office after her husband’s death, Spade puts his arms around her, strokes her “round back”, and whispers “Poor darling,” all the while eyeing his wristwatch and baring his teeth in disgust.  Iva is described by Hammett as a blonde woman of a few more years than thirty.  Her body for all its sturdiness was finely modeled and exquisite.  There is no question of love for Spade.  Iva is just a sex partner, a woman who provides outside stimulation.  Spade tells Iva to go home, she shouldn’t  have come, and Iva asks Spade if he’ll come to her that night.  “Not tonight” Spade says.

“Soon?” Iva pleads.  “Yes,” Spade says.  “How soon?” she begs.  “As soon as I can,” Spade lies.

Spade’s sexuality extends into fornication as well.  He sleeps with Brigid O’Shaughnessy in a hotel room in the Belvedere, rises before her, searches her room while she continues to sleep, then hurries to her apartment at the Coronet, lets himself in with a key he steals from her purse, and proceeds to search her apartment as well.  The classically ordered universe, with everything in its place, is superseded in The Maltese Falcon by a disordered universe in which even the detective can breach the most fundamental tenet of ethical behavior, the duty to keep hands off the client.  The book reeks of illicit sex, alcoholism and lust.  Late in the book, Spade’s methods become even more brutal, verging on the grotesque.  When Gutman produces ten thousand dollars, Spade hands it over to Brigid for safekeeping.  When a thousand turns up missing, Spade insists that Brigid be searched.  Spade demands that she take off her clothes in an adjoining room and when she demurs, Spade says, “All right.  We’ll go back to the other room and I’ll have them taken off.”  You’d be killing something Sam, Brigid argues.  “I don’t know anything about that.  I’ve got to know what happened to the bill.  Take them off.”  Brigid is forced to strip for Sam, and stand naked before him.

The sexuality of The Maltese Falcon ranges into homosexuality in the character of Joel Cairo and Wilmer, the “gunsel”.  Gunsel, it turns out, is street slang for “kept boy”.  This pair clatters around the carousel creatures of Brigid and Spade, who exhibit their love as a kind of torture show, with truth and decency the first casualties.  Cairo, of course, in love with his Wilmer, gradually is convinced by Spade that Wilmer is a perfect fall guy for the murders of Thursby and Archer, regardless of the truth.  By throwing Wilmer to the dogs, they can get the cops off their backs, the better to pursue the black bird.

We’re pretty far from the classical world now, with its independent and verifiable search for truth through a temporarily disordered universe.  Spade has little interest in the truth.  In chapter four, when Brigid admits she’d made up the story about her missing sister, Spade tells her, “Oh that.  We didn’t exactly believe your story.”  Spade believed her two hundred dollars.  He’d been paid more than if he’d been told the truth, enough more to make it all right.  In fact, every time Brigid lies to Spade he pretends to believe her, until the very end, when it no longer matters, truth having been suspended permanently in favor of some more romantic value.  And what is that value?  Well, it surely isn’t the truth.  In Spade’s famous speech about how a detective can’t allow his partner to be killed, he explains that it would be bad for business.  Spade doesn’t mention justice or truth.  He needs his name on the door and he needs the world to know that you can’t kill anybody connected with him and get away with it.  Any other way would be bad for business.  Yes, maybe he loves Brigid and maybe she loves him.  He doesn’t really know about that.  But he knows what would be bad for business.

Which brings us to the black bird, the “dingus” as Spade calls it, the “stuff that dreams are made of.”  Unlike Poe’s orangutan or Christie’s Tunisian dagger, the bird is far more than a puzzle meant to mislead and dazzle the reader, a romantic gadget propelling a plot page by page.  Indeed, Hammett utilizes a classical mode, the enigma and its objective correlative, but stands it on its head, leading the reader on a wild goose chase which proves in the end to be illusory.  Whether it be the quest for wealth and material gain (a symbol of the ill-begotten 1920s and its hedonist scramble), or something more metaphysical, the search for order and meaning, the bird isn’t real.  Instead, after the deaths of Jacoby, Miles Archer, Floyd Thursby, and ultimately Gutman himself (a symbol of overindulgence if ever there was one), it turns out the bird is made of lead.  In Poe’s tale of treasure and rationality, puzzle solving and romance, the Gold Bug held the key to success and happiness.  The falcon, however, is a conceit, a misconception stumbling over an illusion leading to disappointment, false hope, and death.  As a matter of history, there was an agreement in 1530 reached between the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, under which the “rent” for the island of Malta, then under Spanish rule, would be a single falcon.  One of these birds, according to Hammett’s account was to be a “glorious golden falcon encrusted from head to foot with the finest jewels in their coffers.”  In truth, the rent was a live falcon, delivered by hand to the emperor. Gutman spends seventeen years chasing his dream.  We can’t believe that Spade shares the illusion, though he is willing to find out.  In the end, he probably didn’t believe it in anyhow.  After all, he was a seedy detective living in a seedy apartment building leading a seedy sexual and professional life, working out of a seedy office, with a secretary who covered for him.  Fabulous riches are part of everybody’s delusion—the same kind of disordered delusions that keep people buying lottery tickets, pulling slot machine handles, or betting the ponies.  But Spade understands the illusion’s core.  The disordered world of The Maltese Falcon is a world of suckers.  Above all, it is important not to be suckered.  Somebody has to take the fall.  And Spade won’t be suckered.  If Wilmer won’t take the fall, then Brigid will.  But not Spade, never Spade.

Other classical conventions are similarly invoked by Hammett in The Maltese Falcon.  The convention that finds all the suspects gathered in a single room appears at least twice.  The convention of a babble of voices is invoked when Cairo and Brigid engage in an argument as the police burst in on the scene, only to have Spade untangle the babble and explain to the cops that everybody was just having them on. And what about returning the disordered world to order?  Return the disordered world to order?  You must be kidding.  As The Maltese Falcon comes to an end, Spade is back in his office.  Effie Perine announces that Iva is outside.  Spade feels the old disgust, the old terror.  Show her in, he says.  Is it a coincidence that the name Iva is so close to Eve, the woman who led mankind towards knowledge, evil and sin?  There will be no retreat from the world for Sam Spade, no reverie in which the Future recedes. He’s back in the world and it stinks of Iva.

Spade tells us what he thinks about all this in the odd and intrusive tale of Flitcraft, the Tacoma real estate executive who has a pleasant house, a nice wife, a new car, and two sons.  Spade tells the tale to Brigid, trying to explain himself perhaps. One day a guy named Flitcraft goes out to lunch and never comes back.  It transpires that while Flitcraft was walking down the street on his way to lunch, a beam from a construction site detached and fell, nearly striking him dead.  In that instant, his entire “clean, orderly, sane, responsible” life showed itself as foolish.  So Flitcraft leaves Tacoma, heading somewhere new.  He doesn’t get far.  After a couple of years, it transpires that he duplicates his previous life, with another wife, job, and children.  Spade says, “He adjusted himself to the beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted to them not falling.”  One way of looking at the Flitcraft story is to assume that the beam represents a random and chaotic universe, where ultimate causes are hidden. There is no reason to do one thing or another, one way or another.  It was a philosophy that appealed to Hammett, who’d seen, in the streets of Butte and San Francisco, graft and violence pay off more than virtue, and whose own personal life gyrated between quietude and abject perversion.  The random universe is the underlying metaphysical mood of The Maltese Falcon, and every convention Hammett uses mocks the classical ones.  He’s turned the detective story on its head, given it an American spin, and let it go into popular literature.  Writing the book was an act of conscious artistry.


V.        After 1934 Dashiell Hammett never published another word, though he made aborted attempts until 1940 to write a serious novel, never progressing much beyond a few pages of typewritten prose, most of it bad.  He made an astounding amount of money and spent it all, living extravagantly in hotels in Hollywood and New York.  His generosity was legendary, and he was profligate, tossing away so much money that he often borrowed from Blanche Knopf against his royalty checks.   He gambled lamely, visited prostitutes, and when he was too sick to leave his room, hired them to come to him.  He was a bad, quarrelsome drunk, often an embarrassment in public.  As a Marxist and social activist, he never backed down, even when the gloom of anti-communist hysteria descended on the country, and writers and artists flocked to Washington to stool pigeon their way out of trouble.  At age 50, he enlisted in the Army and was sent to Alaska to fight the Japanese, where he spent the war being shadowed by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, whose agents reported nothing traitorous.  His fellow soldiers loved him and he was honorably discharged.  In 1950 doctors ordered him to stop drinking and he promised to do so and did, amazingly.  In charge of bail money for imprisoned communist leaders, he was called before Congress to name the names of donors to the bail fund, refused to testify citing his right as an American citizen, and was jailed for six months, time he did without complaint.  He was, it was said, a patriotic communist, an ascetic hedonist, a conservative libertine, both rich and poor.  The last eight years of his life he spent absolutely alone, living as a recluse in a small cottage provided rent-free by friends of friends.  The money and the high life, the women, the alcohol, and the glamour had long gone.  What’s left is The Maltese Falcon, a book that lay along the path of American literature that began with Huckleberry Finn, a path that like the Oregon Trail, another American path with fading wagon tracks, is harder and harder to discern every year.

Hammett died alone on January 17, 1961.  Like others born in the late nineteenth century he’d seen the American West of corporate greed and political plunder, Prohibition, gangsters.  He’d seen Hollywood glamour and he’d seen darkness descend with the Witch Hunts and the Atomic Age.  He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with all the honors accorded a veteran of the Armed Services.  His great biographer Diane Johnson perceived the nobleness of his spirit not in the good years and the high living, but in the way he endured poverty and anonymity.

The noted critic John Crosby wrote of Hammett that he was “that rare thing, a shaker of the earth, an authentic.  The Maltese Falcon was one of the best books of its kind ever written. It struck the publishing world and reading world—which is something utterly distinct from the literary world—like a thunderclap.  Nothing has been the same since.  Realism. Vigor.  Vitality. Callousness.  Immorality. Amorality.  Muscular.  Hard-boiled.  They were all words applied to Hammett at various times.  But authentic fits him better.”

So be it, Dash.  Thanks.