Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

the maltese falcon cover

A few months ago, I reviewed the movie The Maltese Falcon starring Humphrey Bogart.  The movie was okay, but I was interested in finding out how the book (called the best detective novel ever written by some) was in comparison.

Sam Spade, a PI with the personality of a junkyard dog, receives a visit from a beautiful, mysterious damsel in distress.  She wants him to follow a man named Floyd who has sexually enthralled her sister.  Spade's partner, Miles Archer, volunteers to tail Floyd because, "Maybe you saw her first, Sam, but I spoke first."  Hours later Miles is dead and Sam finds himself embroiled in a crazy chase for a priceless piece of art.

If you're looking for a book where you can really get into the characters' heads, don't pick up this one.  The narrator doesn't make any presumptions to tell us the characters' motivations, and merely relates their actions.  It's easy to see how Hammett might have been influenced by Hollywood--he visually describes everything so perfectly and clearly, but things like emotions are left for the reader to guess at based on dialog and expressions.  Perhaps that's why reading it felt almost like reading the movie to me--that and the fact that the movie follows the book almost scene-by-scene.

I have to say, though, there are some really interesting things going on in this novel.  I did a quick google search and was surprised by the lack of literary analysis for this book, because it could definitely stand up to it.  To me Spade is the American version of Camus' Stranger--perhaps not completely amoral or without emotion, but he's definitely resigned himself to the ideas that things will never change, so there's no point in trying to improve oneself or one's situation; and right and wrong lie only in the eyes of the beholder.  This philosophy is encapsulated in what's called the Flitcraft Parable, where Sam relates the story of the strangest case he ever solved:

A man named Flitcraft had left his real-estate-office, in Tacoma, to go to luncheon one day and had never returned. He did not keep an engagement to play golf after four that afternoon, though he had taken the initiative in making the engagement less than half an hour before he went out to luncheon. His wife and children never saw him again. His wife and he were supposed to be on the best of terms. He had two children, boys, one five and the other three. He owned his house in a Tacoma suburb, a new Packard, and the rest of the appurtenances of successful American living.

Flitcraft had inherited seventy thousand dollars from his father and, with his success in real estate, was worth something in the neighborhood of two hundred thousand dollars at the time he vanished. His affairs were in order, though there were enough loose ends to indicate that he had not been setting them in order preparatory to vanishing. A deal that would have brought him an attractive profit, for instance, was to have been concluded the day after the one on which he disappeared. There was nothing to suggest that he had more than fifty or sixty dollars in his immediate possession at the time of his going. His habits for months past could be accounted for too thoroughly to justify any suspicion of secret vices, or even of another woman in his life, though either was barely possible. "He went like that," Spade said, "like a fist when you open your hand." [...]

"Well that was in 1922. In 1927 I was with one of the big detective agencies in Seattle. Mrs. Flitcraft came in and told us somebody had seen a man in Spokane who looked a lot like her husband. I went over there. It was Flitcraft, all right. He had been living in Spokane for a couple of years as Charles - that was his first name - Pierce. He had an automobile-business that was netting him twenty or twenty-five thousand a year, a wife, a baby son, owned his home in a Spokane suburb, and usually got away to play golf after four in the afternoon during the season."

Spade had not been told very definitely what to do when he found Flitcraft. They talked in Spade's room at the Davenport. Flitcraft had no feeling of guilt. He had left his first family well provided for, and what he had done seemed to him perfectly reasonable. The only thing that bothered him was a doubt he could make that reasonableness clear to Spade. He had never told anybody his story before, and thus had not had to attempt to make its reasonableness explicit. He tried now. "I got it all right [...] but Mrs. Flitcraft never did. She thought it was silly. Maybe it was. Anyway it came out all right. She didn't want any scandal, and after the trick he had played on her - the way she looked at it - she didn't want him. So they were divorced on the quiet and everything was swell."

"Here's what happened to him. Going to lunch he passed an office-building that was being put up - just the skeleton. A beam or something fell eight or ten stories down and smacked the sidewalk alongside him. It brushed pretty close to him, but didn't touch him, though a piece of the sidewalk was chipped off and flew up and hit his cheek. It only took a piece of skin off, but he still had the scar when I saw him. He rubbed it with his finger - well, affectionately - when he told me about it. He was scared still, of course, he said, but he was more shocked than really frightened. He felt like somebody had taken the lid off his life and let him look at the works."

Flitcraft had been a good citizen and a good husband and father, not by any outer compulsion, but simply because he was a man who was most comfortable in step with his surroundings. He had been raised that way. The people he knew were like that. The life he knew was a clear orderly sane responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things. He, the good citizen-husband-father, could be wiped out between office and restaurant by the accident of a falling beam. He knew then that men died at haphazard like that, and live only
while blind chance spared them. It was not, primarily, the injustice of it that disturbed him: he accepted that after the first shock. What disturbed him was the discovery that in sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step, and not into step, with life. He said he knew before he had gone twenty feet from the fallen beam that he would never know peace again until he had adjusted himself to this new glimpse of life. By the time he had eaten his luncheon he had found his means of adjustment. Life could be ended for him at random by a falling beam: he would change his life a random by simply going away. He loved his family, he said, as much as he supposed was usual, but he knew he was leaving them adequately provided for, and his love for them was not of the sort to make absence painful.

"He went to Seattle that afternoon," Spade said, " and from there by boat to San Francisco. For a couple of years he wandered around and then drifted back to the Northwest, and settled in Spokane and got married. His second wife
didn't look like the first, but they were more alike than they were different. You know, the kind of woman 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 has 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 adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling."

The case of the Maltese Falcon might have been a beam landing next to Sam and waking him up, but he knows the feeling won't last forever.  By the end of the book, he's readjusted to exactly the way things were--not happily, perhaps, but with a stoic sort of resignation.  But then I don't think happiness exists in Sam Spade's world--he never once smiles out of genuine amusement, except at his secretary.

Speaking of Sam's secretary, another interesting element of the novel is how women are treated.  If I had to name one central message of the book, it would be that women can't be trusted.  Brigid O'Shaughnessy is clearly a femme fatale type who tries to lure Sam into her web with sex; Effie Perine (it's strange how she's referred to by her first and last name all the time) is clearly the only woman Sam has genuine feelings for, but even she betrays him by siding with Brigid.  There isn't a single female here that doesn't betray a man in some way.  Not only is womanhood in general suspicious, but femininity is equated with evil--two of the male villains are homosexuals and all of them are effeminate.  That's why Sam ends up giving Brigid over to the police--not because she's an evil, manipulative bitch, but because she's a woman and honor only exists between men, even if those two men are sons of bitches like Spade and Archer.

The book was first published in 1929, at about the same time as The Great Gatsby, and honestly I think the two are comparable as literary works.  Hammett is a great writer, and even though I do think the mystery was kind of a fail--because I couldn't have cared less who killed Miles--his snapshot of the evils of greed and consumerism and what they can do to a person's life are spot-on and still spookily relevant.  Actually, The Maltese Falcon might be more successful than The Great Gatsby in its criticism of the American psyche, since Hammett doesn't wrap everything up in pretty language and extended literary metaphors.  I don't know why American teenagers aren't forced to read this book just as they are The Great Gatsby--they should be.

So, should you read the book or watch the movie?  I think I got a lot more out of the book, even though they're both pretty much the same.  The novel is smarter and more subversive, although I didn't realize that until close to the very end.  Spade isn't a likable or sympathetic character in either, but I think I understood him better after reading the book.  And while the mystery was silly and rather pointless in both the book and the movie, I think Hammett did a marginally better job of making it all seem believable in the novel.  So in this instance I'd have to say the book wins.  Read it!

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