1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 22
Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon
Trusting a gorgeous girl's simple task costs Sam Spade's partner his life and lands Spade in hot water with the law. But Spade has crossed the law before in his pursuit of justice, and he won't flinch from doing it again. When the seemingly normal case of murder proves to be part of a large conspiracy spanning continents and centuries, that's just another payday for San Francisco's most ambitious detective.
Dashiell Hammett famously changed the tone of detective fiction when he moved away from simple puzzles into an unflinching depiction of how real crime-fighters talk and act. A veteran Pinkerton detective himself, Hammett understood that high-minded ideals of justice have no place in criminal investigations. His detectives, hard men of rigid honor, move among a criminal underclass so depraved, integrity becomes a liability.
Spade's particularly utilitarian brand of justice, based on consequences rather than rules, shook comfy readers out of Sherlock Holmes' essential cleanliness and lack of ambiguity, forcing us to examine what we mean by words like "truth" and "law." Sam Spade has stones enough to kill, to lie, to steal. He’ll sell out the innocent rather than risk himself. Yet his code, downright Gordian in its intricacy, remains immaculate and internally consistent.
Readers familiar with John Huston’s classic big-screen interpretation may find Hammett’s original novel disquieting. Unlike Humphrey Bogart’s chivalrous knight errant, Hammett presents Spade as a sort of maelstrom, sucking everything into himself with undifferentiating hunger. Everyone around Spade has strong feelings: cops despise him, criminals fear him, women want him. (Incidentally, women, in Spade’s world, exist interchangeably; his chest-thumpingly male ethos entirely excludes knowing or understanding women.)
Film noir, which generally rewards clear binary divisions between hero and villain even as it subverts such divisions, sanitized Spade for posterity. Cinema couldn’t stomach an antihero who sleeps with his partner’s wife, his secretary, his client, successively and concurrently; it couldn’t reconcile a man who mocks his partner, but insists his partner’s killer has to swing. It couldn’t let a protagonist answer a lady’s heartfelt “I love you” with “What of it?”
Yet the very qualities film couldn’t accept make Spade so compelling. Raymond Chandler, a generation after Hammett, wrote: “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.” Sam Spade’s internal moral consistency, as complete yet rootless as any criminal’s, force readers to empathize with completely awful people.
In a telling early sequence, Spade admits he doesn’t carry a gun. “I don’t much like them.” Not for Hammett (who served in both World Wars) the swinging machismo of today’s pistol-packing police culture. Yet twice he points some enemy through doors which inevitably open onto death in crossfire. Spade never pulls the trigger, yet he kills his foes as surely as any assassin. Thus Hammett acknowledges the flaccid boundary between cop and criminal.
And we haven't resolved Hammett's conundrums yet. Though many writers slavishly copy Spade's mannerisms and Hammett's authenticity, society hasn't yet found simple solutions to this complex novel's dilemmas. As we now recognize that the law can't solve all problems, and we must sometimes step off the safe road to do what's right, Sam Spade's quest to resolve just one crime seems more relevant than ever.
First published in 1929, this novel captures its moment beyond the mystery genre’s purported limitations. Spade, the man of honor who nevertheless works among society’s lowest, lives in a dingy flat and sleeps in a Murphy bed. He feuds openly with the police, who consider him another criminal; he, likewise, sees cops as instruments of a corrupt system. The novel implies its villain, Casper Gutman, has police in his pocket.
Law exists, Hammett implies, to impede the people; justice, then, must be illegal. Unlike the “Roaring Twenties” myth perpetuated by that expatriate Hemingway, or his frenemy, the sybarite Fitzgerald, Hammett sees a generation split in two. Spade’s dystopian San Francisco showcases America’s glittering accomplishments, but wallows in extreme poverty. Nothing exists between. In such a space, the just man’s enemy is the state.
Before Hammett, mysteries were primarily mental puzzles with little patience for realistic social commentary. After Hammett, mysteries became straightforward morality plays, where evil exists and law triumphs. But Dashiell Hammett occupied a space where good people needed to carve their own domain, and name it justice. Between today’s boomtown financial industry and gut-wrenching urban poverty, perhaps Hammett has become timely again.