The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep

February 2, 2022 at 10:48 pm (Book review, books, Film and television, Mystery fiction, Uncategorized)

It was with some trepidation that I returned to “those thrilling days of yesteryear” – namely, to the novel that some say started the whole noir thing:

I am doing this because I have signed up for a Lifelong Learning course called ‘Trouble Is My Business: Hardboiled Fiction & Film Noir.’ It begins in late February. Fact is, I signed up for it and promptly forgot about it. Then I received an email informing of the reading list.

Reading list? Oh my…

The Maltese Falcon
The Big Sleep
The Postman Always Rings Twice

A couple of years ago, Usual Suspects discussed The Maltese Falcon. I wrote a blog post on the occasion. I began the post with a quotation from The American Commonwealth by James Bryce, aka Viscount Bryce:

‘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.’

The Viscount concludes this wry bit of social/historical analysis thus:

‘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.’

Well, we derive plenty of knowledge concerning that ‘dangerous constituent’ in Hammett’s novel.

So, on finishing this rereading, what’s my overall take? First off, from the get go, I found the writing to be, for the most part, rather pedestrian, with a few flashes of hardboiled brilliance, as in this pitiless description of Casper Gutman:

‘The fat man was flabbily fat with bulbous pink cheeks and lips and chins and neck, with a great egg of a belly that was all his torso, and pendant cones for arms and legs. As he advanced to meet Spade all of 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. He wore a black cutaway coat, black vest, black satin Ascot tie holding a pinkish pearl, striped gray worsted trousers, and patent-leather shoes.’

At least he’s decently dressed.

As for the plot, it quickly becomes so complicated that by the back stretch of this slender volume, I was pretty well lost. Into the bargain, I was having trouble caring about any of the dramatis personae in the whole tangled mess. And as for the desired object itself, it’s an egregious example of what Hitchcock called a MacGuffin – and not a very intriguing one at that.

There is one thing in The Maltese Falcon that I find fascinating. It has nothing to do with the plot; it’s a story that Spade tells Brigid O’Shaughnessy while they’re waiting for something, or someone. It’s actually more of a parable than a simple tale. It’s about a man called Flitcraft:

Richard Layman, a Hammett biographer, delivered a lengthy and very interesting speech at The Library of Congress in 2005 on the history of The Maltese Falcon. Click here to read it.

I just watched a video on Hammett from 1999. It’s called Dashiell Hammett. Detective. Writer. I found it very interesting. His daughter is interviewed; several other people who knew him also appear:

So, on I go to The Big Sleep. Right off the bat, I’m startled by the difference in the quality of the prose. Chandler’s irreverent wit and colorful figures of speech – perhaps too colorful, at times? – come at you. The carefully crafted sentences – too carefully crafted? – are striking in their precision. You almost want to say, okay, Big Guy, you’re laying it on a little too thick, but it’s such fun, so keep going!

I love the opening paragraph:

‘It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue socks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.’

The eponymous four million dollars refers to the lavish Sternwood estate, where trouble is brewing, courtesy of two out-of-control daughters. What’s needed is a P.I. to make that trouble go away swiftly and silently, without involving the police.

Philip Marlowe has been summoned to take on the job, if he’s willing and/or able. He’s led by the butler – the Sternwood establishment possesses a surfeit of servants – into a ragingly hot greenhouse, where the aged paterfamilias, known simply as the General, spends his remaining days.

Here’s the greenhouse:

‘The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom….The light had an unreal greenish color like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. They smelled as overpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket.’

And here is General Sternwood:

‘Here, in a space of hexagonal flags, an old red Turkish rug was laid down and on the rug was a wheel chair an old and obviously dying man watched us come with black eyes from which all fire had died long ago, but which still had the coal-black directness of the eyes in the portrait that hung above the mantel in the hall. The rest of his face was a leaden mask, with the bloodless lips and the sharp nose and the sunken temples and the outward-turning earlobes of approaching dissolution….His thin clawlike hands were folded loosely on the rug, purple-nailed. A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock.’

Well…yikes. This passage puts me in mind of Yeats’s poem ‘The Second Coming:’

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun…That seems to describe Marlowe, as he takes in the sight of this bare wreckage of a man.

Eventually – sigh – the novel settles down to the kind of plot -driven mania that I found so challenging in the Hammett novel. I’m now on page 104 of 231, and I’m darned if I can tell you who’s doing what to whom. Still, it’s fun – good, harrowing, knuckle-biting fun. And the dialog is,, of course, very entertaining. Actually, my favorite snippet of dialog by Raymond Chandler occurs in the film version of Double Indemnity. James M. Cain wrote the novel and Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder wrote the screenplay. I believe that the famous “How fast was I going, Officer?” exchange was Chandler’s invention:

I think it’s fair to say that as the years have passed, both The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep have been overshadowed by the films they inspired.

Click here to read a review I wrote of a biography of Raymond Chandler that came out several years ago. And finally, I can’t resist showing once again Raymond Chandler’s Hitchcock-like cameo in Double Indemnity. His presence in the film was detected separately by two film scholars in 2009. He’s sitting outside the office of Barton Keyes, played by Edward G. Robinson:

Michael Grost’s site A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection has long been a great help in guiding my forays into older works in the field. He’s not a great fan of Raymond Chandler’s work; nevertheless, he admits that Chandler can at times rise to great heights. This is never more striking than the concluding passage of The Big Sleep. Of the writing there, Grost allows: “This apostrophe to death is magnificently written, and recalls such Elizabethan essays on the same subject as the finale of Sir Walter Raleigh’s The History of the World (1610).”

Here it is:

‘What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was. But the old man didn’t have to be. He could lie quiet in his canopied bed, with his bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting. His heart was a brief, uncertain murmur. His thoughts were as gray as ashes. And in a little while he too, like Rusty Regan, would be sleeping the big sleep.’

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