“The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter” – the cynical, knockdown, take-no-prisoners universe of Dashiell Hammett

July 31, 2009 at 10:45 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

When you ask people if they’ve read The Maltese Falcon,  they usually tell you no, but they’ve seen the movie. The same was true of me until about a week ago. Now I’ve read it. I was knocked sideways! And yes, I’m practicing the short, staccato sentences that seem to flow so easily from the pen of this man:

Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett

Born in St. Mary’s County, Maryland – that’s “Southern Maryland,” to us Free Staters – in 1894, Samuel Dashiell Hammett left school at the age of thirteen. He held a number of jobs before going to work for the Pinkerton Detective Agency in Baltimore. Pinkerton’s offices were located in the Continental Building; hence, the Continental Op, Hammett’s first fictional detective.

While serving in the First World War, Hammett contracted tuberculosis. During his convalescence in hospital, he met  Josephine Dolan, a nurse whom he later married. They had two daughters, but Josephine was advised to take the girls and live apart from her husband because of the disease. Hammet visited his family on weekends and supported them financially as best he could, but almost inevitably, the marriage fell apart.

Meanwhile, now living in San Franciso, Hammett had begun writing stories for the pulps, in particular Black Mask. The magazine’s editor, the shrewd and perceptive  Captain Joseph Shaw, knew a diamond in the rough when he saw one . He encouraged Hammett and gave him room to grow as a writer. The novels Red Harvest and The Dain Curse were published in 1929. In 1930 came The Maltese Falcon and the rest, as they say, is history.


In 1931, Hammett began a relationship with playwright Lillian Hellman; it lasted for the remainder of his life.  unfinished

When the U.S. entered the Second World War, Hammett re-enlisted. There is some question as to whether, following that service,  Hammett ever actually joined the Communist Party. But his connection with it – probably through Hellman – caused him to run afoul of the New York State Supreme Court in 1951. As a result, he was cited for contempt of court and served six months in a federal prison. There was more to come:

“In April of 1953, Hammett was called to testify before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations, chaired by Joseph McCarthy. His testimony before that committee is often quoted. Asked by McCarthy if he would ‘purchase the works of some seventy-five Communist authors and distribute their works throughout the world,’ Hammett replied, ‘If I were fighting communism, I don’t think I would do it by giving people any books at all.’

[The above is from an article in Biography Resource Center, a Gale database available through many public libraries.]

Hammett died in 1961, a veteran of both World Wars, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. At his funeral Lillian Hellman said of  him: “He never lied, he never faked, he never stooped. He seemed to me a great man.”

Now, the above is a lightning-swift, very superficial summary of a fascinating and complex life. For further online reading, I recommend the following: “Dashiell Hammett’s legacy lies not only in his writing, but in his living — rough, wild and on the edge” in SF Gate (the San Francisco Chronicle online); “Let’s Talk About the Black Bird” in January Magazine; and the Hammett entry on the Thrilling Detective site. The New York Times has gathered various pieces related Hammett’s life and work here. And it’s always worth while to seek out the probative analysis and insight offered by Michael Grost on A History of Classic Crime and Detection.

While Dana Gioia was Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, he intiated  The Big Read. (This is but one of the reasons why Gioia is one of my cultural heroes!)  Of the thirty titles chosen to be a part of this program, The Maltese Falcon is one. A radio show accompanies each title; these are available on CD and also online. (Twenty-one of  these CD’s are owned by the Howard County Library. In the traditional catalog, select the search box “Any Word(s) for All Materials” and enter “Big Read National Endowment.”)

I love this lyrical encomium penned by William F. Nolan in his introduction to this anthology:  the-black-mask-boys-cover

Black Mask, and the fiction it printed, grew directly out of the era between the two wars, when machine guns flashed fire from low-slung black limousines, when the corner speakeasy served rotgut gin, when swift rum-runners made night drops in dark coastal waters, when police and politicians were as corrupt as the gangsters they protected, when cons and crooks prowled New York alleys and lurked in trackside hobo jungles, when Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd and Al Capone made daily headlines and terrorized a nation….

The elegant, deductive sleuth, the calm, calculating sifter of clues, gave way to a new breed–the wary, wisecracking knight of the .45, an often violent, always unpredictable urban vigilante fashioned in the rugged frontier tradition of the western gunfighter.

In the pages of Black Mask, the private eye was born.”

And now:


First – kudos to Vintage Crime / Black Lizard for the terrific cover art. It rings true.

Like many others, I was familiar with the book’s plot – although there is much here that varies from the famous film version. For one thing, the novel opens with this description of Sam Spade:

“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.

Well, gosh – not especially flattering, particularly that last bit. Obviously, Spade is not conventionally handsome. Neither was Humphrey Bogart, but that would seem to be about all they have in common, at least physically.

Humphrey Bogart, with the objet d'art that caused all the trouble

Humphrey Bogart, with the objet d’art that caused all the trouble

But Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo and Sydney Greenstreet as Casper Gutman? Ah, yes, right on the mark, IMHO.

(While searching for the image of Bogart, I found this entertaining piece on the SF Gate site.)

Here’s how we’re introduced to the grotesquely obese Gutman:

“The fat man was flabbily fat with bulbous pink cheeks and lips and chins and neck, with a great soft egg of a belly that was all his torso, and pendant cones for arms and legs. As he advanced to meet Spade all his bulbs rose and shook and fell separately with each step, in the manner of clustered soap-bubbles not yet released from the pipe through which they had been blown. His eyes, made small by fat puffs around them, were dark and sleek. Dark ringlets thinly covered his broad scalp.

Perhaps a qualification is needed here; Sydney Greenstreet is not nearly this repugnant.

Although the emphasis is on nonstop action and snappy, urgent dialog, Hammett makes room in his narrative for descriptive passages. As you can see from the above excerpt, he is uncommonly good at it. This was just one of several surprises awaiting me as a first time reader of this noir classic. Another was the relatively low key of the writing, at least in the early sections of the novel.


More gloriously garish cover art!

I was expecting something of the manic intensity of Red Harvest, but I did not find it. At first, I felt vaguely disappointed, but that feeling gradually left me to be replaced by awe. What I was experiencing was the difference between an entertaining – a highly entertaining – wild ride and a tightly controlled masterpiece. The difference in style between these two novels is all the more striking given the fact that they were both written around the same time.

Red Harvest has a justly famous opener (the speaker is the Continental Op):

“I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn’t think anything of what he had done to the city’s name. Later I heard men who could manage their r’s give it the same pronunciation. I still didn’t see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves’ word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better.

The novel is rich with hardboiled slang:

“‘His real moniker is Al Kennedy. He was in on the Keystone Trust knock-over in Philly two years ago, when Scissors Haggerty’s mob croaked two messengers. Al didn’t do the killing, but he was in on the caper. He used to scrap around Philly. The rest of them got copped, but he made the sneak. That’s why he’s sticking out here in the bushes. That’s why he won’t never let  them put his mug in the papers or on any cards. That’s why he’s a pork-and-beaner when he’s as good as the best. See?’

I’m sure you do, by this point – I know I do!

I was surprised to find so little of this lingo in The Maltese Falcon, at least at the outset. Later on, there’s more of it, but it’s never “laid on with  a trowel” as it is in Red Harvest. I was stopped in my tracks, though, when I came to this sentence: “‘How long have you been off the goose-berry lay, son?” Fortunately, there’s a great online resource called  Twists, Slugs, and Roscoes: a glossary of hardboiled slang. ‘Goose-berry lay’ is defined as the act of stealing clothes from a clothesline. I still didn’t get it, but a further reference elucidates thus:

“The expression goes back to the old days of the tramp who from time to time needed a few pennies to buy food. He would wait until the housewife had put out her wash; then he would descend on the clothesline, pick up an armful of clothes, and scurry away to sell them.

[The above is from “Getting Away with Murder,”  an essay that  Erle Stanley Gardner wrote for The Atlantic in 1965.]

In Chapter Seven, Spade relates to Brigid O’Shaughnessy the rather singular story of a man named Flitcraft.  It seems that after a near death experience – in his case, “a beam or something” from a construction site falling to the pavement and missing him by inches – Flitcraft decided to abandon his wife and family. Mrs. Flitcraft hired Sam Spade to find her missing husband. Several years later, after getting a lucky tip, Spade eventually succeeds in doing this. It seems that Flitcraft had reconstructed his middle class life in another town, complete with new wife and children:

“‘His second wife didn’t look like the first, but they were more alike than they were different. You know, the kind of women that play fair games of golf and bridge and like new salad recipes. He wasn’t sorry for what he had done. It seemed reasonable enough to him. I don’t think he even knew he had settled back naturally into the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma. But that’s the part of it I always liked. He asdjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.’

This whole story-within-a-story – one reviewer called it a parable –  is wonderfully told.  I can’t for the life of me see what it has to do with the rest of  the novel. I wonder if it is a retelling of an actual case handled by Hammett during his time as a Pinkerton agent.

Then there’s the falcon itself. This rather unprepossessing statuette has got to be the most outrageous MacGuffin ever to appear in crime fiction! Gutman spins a fabulous tale of its history, supposedly going back to the twelfth century and involving  Templars, Crusaders, and other fabulous actors. I was astonished to see the Verney family thrown in as part of this scenario. Gutman mentions a specific title, Memoirs of the Verney Family During the Seventeenth Century, supposedly written by Lady Francis Verney. The Verneys were an  actual family of British aristocrats who accumulated an exhaustive trove of letters pertaining to their family history. I first heard of them when The Verneys by Adrian Tinniswood came out two years ago. The subtitle of the book is:  “a true story of love, war, and madness in seventeenth-century England.”verneys

Finally there’s the vexed question of Spade and The Women. This is simply part of the larger question of the role of women in noir fiction and films. I’m not nearly well enough read in this area to offer up any new insights.  There are three female characters in The Maltese Falcon: Iva Archer, the clingy, pathetic widow of Sam’s erstwhile partner Miles; the above mentioned Brigid O’Shaughnessy, whose attractions are hard for Sam to resist even though he knows her to be utterly untrustworthy; and finally Sam’s secretary Effie Perine.  Effie, who lives with her mother, is the best of the lot. In his heart her boss knows it, and at one point bestows upon her what is probably his ultimate compliment: “‘You’re a damned good man, sister.'”


By 1934, the white heat of Hammett’s creativity had apparently burned itself out. I read somewhere that at the time of his death, almost three decades later, he was broke and largely forgotten.

In his landmark essay of 1952  “The Simple Art of Murder,” Raymond Chandler has this to say:

“Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish. He put these people down on paper as they are, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes. He had style, but his audience didn’t know it, because it was in a language not supposed to be capable of such refinements. They thought they were getting a good meaty melodrama written in the kind of lingo they imagined they spoke themselves. It was, in a sense, but it was much more… I believe this style, which does not belong to Hammett or to anybody, but is the American language (and not even exclusively that any more), can say things he did not know how to say or feel the need of saying. In his hands it had no overtones, left no echo, evoked no image beyond a distant hill. He is said to have lacked heart, yet the story he thought most of himself is the record of a man’s devotion to a friend. He was spare, frugal, hardboiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.

Ross MacDonald said, “We all came out from under Hammett’s black mask.” (1952)

In 1999, the  Library of America issued a collection of Hammett’s novels. This was followed in 2001 by a second volume, Crime Stories and Other Writings.

hammett1 hammett2

Here is an excerpt from a letter Hammett wrote to Blanche Knopf in 1928:

“I’m one of the few-if there are any more-people moderately literate who take the detective story seriously. I don’t mean that I necessarily take my own or anybody else’s seriously-but the detective story as a form. Some day somebody’s going to make ‘literature’ of it … and I’m selfish enough to have my hopes.”

I’d like to address the shade of Dashiell Hammett and say to him, Mr. Hammett, your hopes have been realized, probably beyond your wildest dreams.



  1. Biography Resource Center said,

    Thanks for using us!

  2. “The wilderness of the time passed into the soul of the people…” The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, a book discussion « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] were jump-started by Prohibition and its destructive effect on the forces of law and order.  Dashiell Hammett once told a reporter that California had the most corrupt politics in the world. And Raymond […]

  3. Best books of 2009: my own favorites « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Pix by Bill James All My Enemies by Barry Maitland Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett Turning Point by Peter Turnbull White Nights by Ann Cleeves A Rule Against […]

  4. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] The Coffin Trail – Martin Edwards The Indian Bride,  Black Seconds, and Water’s Edge – Karin Fossum Half Broken Things and Puccini’s Ghosts – Morag Joss Monsieur Monde Vanishes – Simenon The Ghost – Robert Harris Blue Heaven – C.J. Box Suffer the Little Children, A Sea of Troubles, Girl of His Dreams – Donna Leon Careful Use of Compliments and novels in The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series – Alexander McCall Smith Price of Malice – Archer Mayor Second Burial of a Black Prince – Andrew Nugent The Clare Fergusson / Russ Van Alstyne series– Julia Spencer-Fleming The Armand Gamache series – Louise Penny Minotaur and  The Birthday Present – Barbara Vine Seven Lies – James Lasdun Once a Biker – Peter Turnbull Water Like a Stone – Deborah Crombie Christine Falls – Benjamin Black The Tinderbox – Jo Bannister Raven Black and White Nights – Ann Cleeves What the Dead Know – Laura Lippman On Beulah Height, and other Dalziel & Pascoe novels – Reginald Hill The Pure in Heart – Susan Hill The Godwulf Manuscript and The Professional – Robert B. Parker The Remains of an Altar – Phil Rickman The Chameleon’s Shadow – Minette Walters The Way Some People Die and The Zebra-Striped Hearse – Ross MacDonald Cold in Hand – John Harvey Monster in the Box, Simisola, and Judgement in Stone– Ruth Rendell The Accomplice – Elizabeth Ironside The Suspect – L.R. Wright Finding Nouf – Zoe Ferraris Bleeding Heart Square – Andrew Taylor Strangers on a Train – Highsmith The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Larsson The Crossing Places – Elly Griffiths The Cold Dish – Craig Johnson The Laughing Policeman – Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo Hit Parade and Hit and Run – Lawrence Block Thunder Bay – William Kent Krueger The Demon of Dakar – Kjell Eriksson Brat Farrar and The Franchise Affair – Josephine Tey The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett […]

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