The Maltese Falcon (1930) is probably America's greatest detective novel: it was recognized as such when published, and critics continue to affirm its importance. It defines the American conception of the private eye, Sam Spade, of the femme fatale, Brigid O'Shaughnessy, and of the hard-boiled style. It is an eerie prognosticator of the personal and professional toughness that would be necessary in the Depression and after, and its famous "objective" point of view is a tour de force of technique.
The novel begins when Brigid O'Shaughnessy hires Spade and partner Miles Archer to protect her from former partner Thursby. When Archer and then Thursby are murdered, Spade intervenes "to keep family troubles in the family" (it's his partner, and he is having an affair with Archer's wife that he doesn't want known). Brigid eventually draws Spade into her plan to sell a jewel-encrusted statue of a falcon to her other former partners – Joel Cairo, Wilmer, and Casper Gutman (modeled on Fatty Arbuckle). The first two characters are portrayed as homosexuals, the third as a sadist who brutalizes his daughter. They alternately hold Spade at gunpoint, tail him, drug him, and mug him in efforts to find out what he and Brigid know about the falcon. Against them Spade employs his physical and mental toughness, his faithful secretary Effie Perrine, and his standing with San Francisco policemen Dundy and Polhaus. But Dundy turns on him, as they follow the leads in Archer's murder to Spade's affair with Iva Archer. Meeting hostility everywhere, Spade sleeps with Brigid and searches her apartment before she gets up.
What Hammett withholds from readers by the "objective style" is Spade's knowledge that she killed Archer, though Spade does intimate in an embedded narrative, known as the Flitcraft Parable, that he follows the patterns in his client's life, rather than extraordinary events. Brigid goes into hiding and Spade learns the history of the statue from Gutman, who drugs him. Beaten by Wilmer, Spade awakes in time to receive the falcon from the dying Captain Jacoby of the ship La Paloma. Brigid draws him into a trap with the four partners, but when Spade produces the falcon, it turns out to be fake. During recriminations Spade stalls and divides the villains with scenarios in which each is the "fall guy." All flee, except Brigid, who suggests that Spade escape with her. In one of the most powerful scenes in the genre, Spade enumerates the reasons he cannot, including the withheld knowledge that she killed Archer. Turning them all over to the police, he learns from them that Wilmer has killed Gutman. Having done his legal duty and preserved his professional and personal integrity, Spade faces Effie's scorn the next day for betraying Brigid's love. He also faces Iva Archer, who is waiting to see him.
Sam Spade was immediately perceived as an icon. Reviewer Donald Douglas at the New Republic wrote that he evoked "the genuine presence of the myth… not the tawdry gumshoeing of the ten-cent magazine." Dorothy Parker at The New Yorker found him masculine, modern, and sexy.1 Spade differs importantly from Hammett's Continental Op. He is a loner and in business for himself after Archer's death, thus removed from any lingering feelings of "brotherhood," such as the Op felt for fellow agents. His speech is ironic and bitter, but never comic. He engages in much less gunplay and violence, which Hammett never employs for comic effect. Spade's life – from his efficiency apartment with its fold-out bed to his "office wife" Effie – is a model of economy. He wastes no words, time, money, or love. Unlike the rumpled, pudgy Op, Spade is smooth, fit, and suit-clad. Beneath this Art Moderne surface is a unified code, expressed at length in the stunning denouement: "I'm a detective and expecting me to run criminals down and then let them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go…. No matter what I wanted to do now it would be absolutely impossible for me to let you go without having myself dragged to the gallows…. I couldn't be sure you wouldn't decide to shoot a hole in me some day…. I won't because all of me wants to – wants to say to hell with the consequences and do it – and because – God damn you – you counted on that with me the same as you counted on that with the others." 2 Spade will not be a "sap," acting on emotions against his long term best interest, as he explained in the Flitcraft story. Having deserted his family after a falling beam nearly killed him, Flitcraft returns to the same patterns of life he had abandoned: "he adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell and he adjusted himself to them not falling" (54). Man is adaptive and habitual, Spade intimates; in Brigid's case, he sees that her habit of lying is fundamental.
Brigid is arguably the best developed femme fatale in the genre. Not merely pretty or sexy, she is intelligent and clever – Spade's equal, making their mutual attraction plausible. Positioned between the adulterous Iva Archer and the office wife Effie Perrine, Brigid is a fantasy -- sexy and efficient. These three women together are symbolic, forming the trio of "Fates" who have long asked questions, solved mysteries, and possessed occult powers in narrative. They also represent the choices faced by the male protagonist and readers: the promiscuous wife, the spunky girl-next-door, or the aggressive flapper.
The earliest appreciations were from reviewers and writers. Chandler wrote that it "may or may not be a work of genius, but an art which is capable of it is not 'by hypothesis' incapable of anything." 3 Macdonald said it "broke the barrier of the genre: it was, and is, a work of art." 4 Two of the most important essays on the novel appeared in 1968 in David Madden's Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties: Irving Malin's "Focus on The Maltese Falcon: The Metaphysical Falcon," and Robert Edenbaum's "The Poetics of the Private Eye: The Novels of Dashiell Hammett." 5 As early as 1964 William P. Kenney wrote a doctoral dissertation including Hammett, and in 1972 George J. Thompson wrote one about Hammett alone. 6
In his influential essay, Edenbaum pointed out that "although Spade is no murderer, Brigid is his victim," because he alone knows everything, while Brigid does not know that he knows. She "is the manipulated, the deceived… finally, in a very real sense, the victim." 7 This interpretation, depending on the assumption that Spade is an allegoric agent and reading the novel against the grain of sentiment, has been influential.
Such a reading is aided by Hammett's "objective" point of view, which refers to passages such as this:
A telephone bell rang in darkness. When it had rung three times bedsprings creaked, fingers fumbled on wood, something small and hard thudded on a carpeted floor, the springs creaked again, and a man's voice said: "Hello…. Yes, speaking…. Dead?" (8)
Presenting only what an observer could record, the "objective style" emphasizes objects and actions. Readers must schematize for themselves the character's reactions and consciousness. The most famous such passage depicts Spade calmly rolling a cigarette after the news of Archer's death; his feelings are unknown, but readers see his careful, precise technique. There are numerous such passages, and Hammett had written in his earlier advertising days about their technique, which he called meiosis: "It is a rhetorical trick, the employment of understatement, not to deceive, but to increase the impression made." 8 Then and now, most readers have assumed a smooth, Art Moderne efficiency to Spade, as well as a cunning self-restraint masking force or violence. Quick to perceive, Spade is also quick to figure his self-interest. It is Hammett's style, as well as Spade's actions, that suggest this to readers. Praise for this style was unabated until 1982, when James Guetti pointed out that the details were redundant and slowed down modern readers.9 In 1995 William Marling argued that such details as the V-motif in Spade's face were part of an organized metonymic approach that Hammett learned from advertising. 10
1 Donald Douglas, "Not One Hoot for the Law," New Republic, April 9, 1930, 226; Dorothy Parker, "Oh Look -- Two Good Books!" New Yorker, April 25, 1931, 83-84. 2 Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon (New York: Knopf, 1930). Reprinted 1957, 183-84. 3 Raymond Chandler, "The Simple Art of Murder," Atlantic Monthly, December, 1944, 58. 4 Ross Macdonald in Christopher Mettress, The Criticial Response to Dashiell Hammett, 40. 5 Irving Malin's "Focus on The Maltese Falcon: The Metaphysical Falcon," and Robert Edenbaum's "The Poetics of the Private Eye: The Novels of Dashiell Hammett," in David Madden, editor, Tough Guy Novels of the Thirties (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968), 80-103, 104-09. 6 William P. Kenney, "The Dashiell Hammett Tradition and the Modern American Detective Novel," Ph. D. Dissertation, University of Michigan, 1964; George J. Thompson, "The Problem of Moral Vision in Dashiell Hammett's Novels," Ph. D. Dissertation, University of Connecticut -- Storrs, 1972.7 Edenbaum, in Madden, 82. 8 Hammett, in Dianne Johnson, Dashiell Hammett, 317. 9 James Guetti, "Aggressive Reading: Detective Fiction and Realistic Narrative," Raritan, 2.1 (Summer, 1982): 128-38. 10 Marling, Roman Noir, 93-146.