“The wilderness of the time passed into the soul of the people…” The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, a book discussion

August 13, 2009 at 6:49 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

In the book Sleuths, Inc., Hugh Eames quotes from The American Commonwealth, written by James Bryce and published in 1888. In this passage, Lord Bryce offers his own rather unique version of California’s history:

“‘A great population had gathered there before there was any regular government to keep it in order, much less any education or social culture to refine it. The wilderness of the time passed into the soul of the people, and left them more tolerant of violent deeds, more prone to interferences with, or suppression of, regular law, than are the people in most parts of the union.’

Bryce had something to add about the place that he considered to be the epicenter of California’s corruption:

“‘That scum which the western moving wave of emigration carried on its crest is here stopped, because it can go no further. It accumulated in San Francisco and forms a dangerous constituent of the population.’

These thoughts may have been penned in the late 1800’s, but there is evidence that these conditions persisted into the twentieth century – or perhaps 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 Chandler said the following in a letter to his agent:

“‘The thing I love best about S.F. is its go to hell attitude…The narrow streets are lined with NO PARKING AT ANY TIME signs and also lined with parked automobiles which look as if they had been there all day…The taxi drivers are wonderful too. They obey no laws but those of gravity and we even had one who passes street cars on the left, an offense for which you would probably get ninety days in Los Angeles.’

All of the above quotations and other information come from Sleuths, Inc., which is subtitled Studies of Problem Solvers: Doyle, Simenon, Hammett, Ambler, Chandler.  This book, published by J.B. Lippincott in 1978, is the most idiosyncratic and prized volume of crime fiction criticism in my (fairly large) collection of same. Sleuths Inc cover (It is owned by the Howard County Library.) I had never heard of Lord Bryce and The American Commonwealth until I encountered him in its pages. The only information provided about Hugh Eames was that he was also the author of Winner Lose All: Dr. Cook and the Theft of the North Pole. I had no luck with Google or Wikipedia, but the Gale database Biography Resource Center did feature a brief entry on this author. Eames was born in Philadelphia in 1917 and obtained his degree from Northwestern University in 1939. He served in the army during World War II. From 1945 to 1950, he was a reporter for Fairchild Publications in New York and Chicago. He then spent five years in Europe, during which time he studied at both the University of Madrid and the University of Paris. He then worked in the hotel business in Carmel, California. It was during this period that he began to write, beginning with fiction in 1956 and switching to nonfiction in 1968.

The Biography Resource Center cites by title only his two works of nonfiction. There’s something oddly sketchy about this information; I’ve been intrigued some time now by the question: just who is this man?

Well, I didn’t actually mean to get off on that tangent… but rather interesting, yes?

Anyhow – the somewhat anarchic state of things in the City by the Bay came up in our discussion of The Maltese Falcon. maltese_falcon_1930_redux Our leader Barb also provided some fascinating information about the workings of the Pinkerton Detective Agency in the days when Hammett was in their employ. But the most interesting part of the discussion had to do with The Maltese Falcon itself: can the book can still be read with enjoyment, all these decades after its initial appearance? The verdict was mixed. There was impatience with Hammett’s depiction of women, although we agreed that the male characters were themselves rather stereotypical. For some in the group, that fact was a deal breaker – that, and a general dated feeling about the narrative. But for some of us, that very datedness was a plus, as it brought a particular time and place so vividly to life. (The novel’s action takes place in 1928; it was published in 1930.)

Barb emphasized the groundbreaking aspect of The Maltese Falcon: although Carroll John Daly originated the fictional hardboiled private eye, he was nowhere near as gifted a writer as Hammett, who is generally credited with refining the form and giving it heft. Some of  that heft has to do with the moral dimension of detective work. Barb was much concerned with this question, and it proved an interesting one. Does Sam Spade act in accordance with a moral code, or is his interest in the recovery of the falcon purely mercenary? In the end, the need to obtain justice on behalf of  his murdered partner Miles Archer – a man for whom Spade had little liking and less respect – and whose wife he was carrying on an affair with! – trumped all other considerations, including his undeniable attraction to  Brigid O’Shaughnessy.

Toward the end of the evening, we viewed two scenes from the classic 1941 film version of this novel. First, we see Brigid coming to Spade for help. She presents herself to him as “Miss Wonderly” and proceeds to tell a story about a missing sister whom she wants Spade to locate. The whole thing is a farrago of lies, but Spade is at once fascinated by this woman and willingly lets himself be sucked into the intrigue in which she herself has become embroiled.

We then watched the film’s final scene. Brigid is entreating Sam Spade not to turn her over to the police. Finally he’s had it with her begging, pleading, and manipulating, and he rounds on her angrily:

“‘I’m not going to play the sap for you. I won’t walk in Thursby’s and Christ knows who else’s footsteps. You killed Miles and you’re going over for it.’

(These lines of dialog are actually from the novel, but words very like it are spoken in the film.)

At this crucial point in the story, Sam wants it made clear to Brigid that he’s not going to “play the sap” for her. He feels so urgently on this score that in the novel he repeats the sentiment, using the same expression, several times before the end. Is this, in fact, a basic credo of his; namely, don’t let a woman’s wiles cause you to do the wrong thing or be made a fool of? Spade also tells Brigid quite frankly that if he lets her get away with murdering Miles, “‘…you’d have something on me that you could use  whenever you happened to want to.'” In my mind, as soon as he says that, their relationship instantly became the stuff of a very debased currency – an impoverished thing, with no component of trust in it.

Brigid O'Shaughnessy being taken away by the police. The grille of the elevator mimics the prison bars through which she will soon be peering out at the world.

Brigid O'Shaughnessy being taken away by the police. The grille of the elevator mimics the prison bars through which she will soon be peering out at the world.

At the conclusion of the film, after Brigid’s fate has  been sealed, one of the cops asks Sam Spade just what the falcon is, anyway. Spade answers, “It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.” I’m not sure if that’s the exact quote, but it’s something very close to it. As Barb pointed out to us, that final line of dialog was added by director John Huston; it does not appear in the novel. But one feels that it could have, and that it is true to the novel’s overarching theme.

Here’s a fascinating piece on the falcon in January Magazine. It’s by Hammett biographer Richard Layman.

Barb did a great job leading this discussion. She shared a wealth of background material with us, and her questions were provocative and thoughtful. She recommended Spade & Archer, a new title by veteran crime writer (and former private investigator)  Joe Gores.  archer

I recommend this American Masters film: Dashiell Hammett DVD Cover It was made in1999; in it, people who knew Hammett are interviewed.

Finally, I brought this along: daughter This book has some priceless photos of Hammett’s family, and Hammett himself, when he was a young man “on the make.” Hammett had two daughters; Jo was the younger. Her reminiscences, included here,  are poignant. Hammett scholar Richard Layman served as the editor of this volume, along with Julie M. Rivett, Jo Hammett’s daughter.


[Thanks are due to Mike Humbert and his wonderful website for this picture.]


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