In 1934, four years after The Maltese Falcon was published, Dashiell Hammett wrote this of his anti-heroic, hard-boiled detective, Sam Spade: “He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would liked to have been and quite a few of them in their cockier moments thought they approached. For your private detective . . . wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent bystander, or client.”
Hammett knew what he was talking about. He’d been one himself, an operative, that is, from 1915 – 1921, working for the Pinkerton Detective Agency out of Baltimore, Spokane, and San Francisco. So when he started writing detective fiction in the 1920s, he drew on his experience to create stories that felt extraordinarily authentic. He was writing about people he knew, or knew about.
Here’s the story: an attractive young woman who calls herself Miss Wonderly comes to the offices of Sam Spade and his partner, Miles Archer, looking for help. Her younger sister, Corinne, has run off with a dangerous man named Floyd Thursby. They’re staying somewhere in San Francisco. Archer sets out to trail Thursby and is murdered; his body is found late that evening in an alley. Shortly afterwards, Thursby is shot down in front of his hotel. The police suspect Spade killed him to avenge Archer’s death, but can’t prove anything. Knowing that, Spade simply laughs it off.
The following day, Miss Wonderly leaves a message at Sam’s office that she wants to see him. When he turns up at her apartment, she confesses that her real name is Brigid O’Shaughnessy, there is no sister, and she and Thursby have been working together. She’s sure Thursby killed Archer but doesn’t know who killed Thursby. And that’s as much as she’s willing to say.
“I’ve been bad,” she tells him, “worse than you could know – but I’m not all bad. Look at me, Mr. Spade. You know I’m not all bad, don’t you? You can see that, can’t you? Then can’t you trust me a little?”
Spade doesn’t trust her, but he’s attracted to her. And he agrees to help her. It eventually comes out that Brigid is involved in a complicated plot to steal a jewel-encrusted statuette, worth a fortune. Floyd Thursby was her accomplice; the two of them were originally working with Joel Cairo in Hong Kong, but decided to cut him out of the deal. Back at Spade’s office, Joel Cairo turns up, offering him $5,000 to recover the bird. He believes Sam either has the statuette or knows where to get it.
In the meantime, Spade realizes he’s being followed by a slim young man we later learn is named Wilmer. He, like Joel Cairo, is working for the real villain of the story, an antiques collector named Caspar Gutman. Wealthy, urbane, and obese, Gutman is obsessed with the black bird – the Maltese Falcon – whose history dates back to the mid 16th century and the Knights Templar of Malta. Gutman offers Spade $25,000 to deliver the bird to him, an offer he later rescinds, offering $10,000 instead. When the bird does fall into Spade’s hands, he secures it in a storage locker and returns home to find Brigid waiting for him outside his apartment. They go inside and are met by Gutman, Cairo, and Wilmer, guns at the ready. Spade agrees to give them the bird, in return for a “fall guy” – Wilmer must be turned over to the police. This agreed to, Spade calls his secretary to bring the bird to his apartment. She does so, and Gutman frantically rips apart the packaging. Alas – it’s a fake. Cairo is devastated but Gutman quickly recovers – he’s spent decades searching for the bird . . . what’s another year, in the greater scheme of things?
We come now to the part of the book which most will remember from the 1941 film starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor – the part where Sam tells Brigid she’s “taking the fall”. He knows now she killed Miles Archer, he knows she killed Floyd Thursby – she’s going to pay the price. “I hope to Christ they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck,” he tells her. When she asks him why he’s doing this, he says he has no choice. He may be hard-boiled and he may be a womanizer (besides sleeping with Brigid, he’s been having an affair with Ivy Archer, his late partner’s wife and may or may not have been romantically involved with his secretary), but he has his own, self-imposed moral code:
“When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. And it happens we’re in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it’s – it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it, bad all around, bad for every detective everywhere.”
Hammet’s been criticized for his portrayal of Cairo, the “fairy”, who minces his way into the room and wears too much cologne. To be fair, though, it can be argued that including a homosexual character in a work of pulp fiction was rather brave, at the time. Cairo’s sexuality is one of several aspects of the book that was downplayed in the film, in order to conform to the set of morality guidelines laid down by the Hays Code. At one point Spade strip-searches Brigid looking for a missing $1,000 dollar bill; earlier, when Brigid realizes Cairo is offering more money for the bird than she can afford, she offers to sleep with Sam. Neither of these scenes would have made it past the censors.
Having mentioned the movie – because how can you talk about The Maltese Falcon without mentioning Bogart and Astor? – it should be stated that John Huston’s production was in most other ways faithful to the book. Like the 1931 film before it, which starred Bebe Daniels and Ricardo Cortez, most of the dialogue was lifted verbatim from the novel. And why wouldn’t it be? When you have lines like “When I slap you, you’ll take it and like it” why wouldn’t you use them?
Unlike Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, Spade isn’t particularly intelligent. That is, not more so than the average person. He makes no great claims to having a phenomenal memory, a heightened sense of intuition, or an extraordinary talent for detailed observation. What he brings to the case is a dogged determination to see it through, an understanding of human nature, and the sheer insolence to brazen it out, whatever the situation.
It’s tempting to regard Sam Spade as the author’s alter ego: Hammett, like Spade, was a no-nonsense, hard-drinking man’s man – “spare, frugal, hard-boiled” is how Raymond Chandler described him. Even on his deathbed he refused to lie to Lillian Hellman – he refused to say he loved her.
But there are differences. Hammet was a left-wing activist who did time, in Spade’s lingo, for refusing to divulge the names of Communist sympathizers. Later, his appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) led to his being blacklisted. His books were removed from public libraries, screenings of film versions stopped. He became, like the many screenwriters, actors, directors, and musicians who relied on Hollywood for their livelihoods, a non-person.
Sam Spade would never have put himself in this position. It’s like he told Brigid O’Shaugnessy: Sam Spade wouldn’t play the sap for anyone.