Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon was the book selected for Maricopa County's The Big Read, sponsored by The National Endowment for the Arts. We were fortunate enough to have Betty Webb, author of the Lena Jones noir mysteries, as our discussion leader at the Velma Teague Branch Library.
Before she started, Betty mentioned a series of books by a children's writer who is a fan of noir, the Chet Gecko series by Bruce Hale, who has written books with titles such as The Malted Falcon, The Possum Always Rings Twice, and Murder, My Tweet.
Webb said there were mysteries before Hammett. Agatha Christie wrote her Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot books beginning in the 20s. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the Sherlock Holmes storie, and, of course, Edgar Allan Poe wrote Murders in the Rue Morgue. But, detective stories before Hammett were cozies with gentlemen detectives, such as Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey. Poison was a popular murder device because you didn't see blood.
Hammett, though, was a detective for the Pinkerton Agency, and he knew what real detectives were like. He served in both world wars, although he had tuberculosis most of his life. During the Red Scare in the 1950s, he was brought before Joseph McCarthy, and jailed for six months for refusing to name names. He was blacklisted, and never wrote again. There was a reason he did not trust authority.
Dashiell Hammett was thought of as an intellectual guy, but he dropped out of high school to go to work. He only had a 10th grade education. He bummed around at various jobs, and ended up at Pinkerton. He disliked the Agatha Christie type of cozies. He wanted to write about realistic detectives. He wanted to write about the type of criminals he knew. Christie's criminals were in polite society, part of it. Hammett's criminals didn't have redeeming qualities. But, he knew detectives could be crooked, too.
Webb called Sam Spade, Hammett's detective, the quintessential detective. He lies to everyone, to cops, his girlfriends, his partner. The first person killed in The Maltese Falcon was Spade's partner, Miles Archer. Spade had an affair with Archer's wife. It was hinted that he had an affair with his secretary, and it was obvious that he went to bed with "the woman", Brigid O'Shaughnessy. At the time they went to bed, Spade already knew Brigid was crooked.
Hammett's description of Sam Spade as a "blond satan" doesn't describe Humphrey Bogart, who played him in the movie. However, Bogart could portray a tough guy. He could give off the image of Sam Spade, and Spade's personality. Spade was a smooth talker, a smooth liar. No woman was safe with him; they all loved him. Hammett made him an anti-hero that everyone knew, but loved anyway. Men liked him as a tough man with answers. Women were tripping over him.
The term "noir" means dark and cynical. You'll never find a hopeful noir. Webb said her first Lena Jones' mystery is called Desert Noir because it shows the seamy underbelly in the desert. The desert has strong sunlight, but the strongest, darkest shadow is in the desert.
The internet description of noir describes a crime drama, emphasizing moral ambiguity. It's in black-and-white. The hardboiled school of crime fiction emerged during the Depression with Raymond Chandler and Hammett. Moral ambiguity meant the detective could lie and scheme, and still do the right thing. They could still be fair and good. In some detective stories now, the detective falls for a woman, who turns out to be the criminal, and he protects her. Spade doesn't. He had rules. "When a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it." It's bad for business if you let the killer go free when you're in the detective business. And, it's nature. A detective is like a dog with a rabbit, that won't let the rabbit go. Sam Spade does the right thing, but is it for the right reason? He won't lie to himself about his reasons. He doesn't necessarily make "moral decisions." There is a certain amount of guilt.
Webb said her detective, Lena Jones, was found on Thomas Road in Phoenix when she was four with a bullet in her head. She lost consciousness, and, when she emerged from a coma, she didn't know her past, her name, where she was from, or who shot her. She spent her childhood in one foster home after another, and was raped and beaten in one of them. She wound up as a private detective. She does the right thing for the right reasons. She feels for the underdog, because she was one. She will lie and cheat to help women and children. Lena is not the most honest person. Lena and Sam Spade do not trust authority. Lena was once a cop, but she was shot in a screwed up drug raid. Lena and Sam Spade see no justice on earth. Lena believes there should be justice.
Betty Webb asked if we noticed there was no backstory on Sam Spade. We know nothing about any of the characters other than what happens in the duration of this one case. Hammett doesn't give the backstory. There are no preconceived ideas as to how Spade acts.
For him, the end justifies the means. Is he a mean person? He's a little cold. He doesn't plan to be mean. He doesn't go out of his way to hurt someone. Take Miles Archer's wife, who would be considered a stalker today. The easiest way for Spade to get out of situations with her is to say, "Sure, sweetheart." However, he does hurt people to get what he wants.
Webb said authors try to get things by editors by making mistakes, or putting something in the book that the editor will pounce on, and maybe they won't notice what the author really wants in the book. Hammett had the phrase "gooseberry lay" in the book. A gooseberry lay comes from tramps who would hide in the gooseberry bushes, and, usually on Monday when the laundry was done, steal the laundry and sell it. He used the phrase to draw the editor's attention away from the word he used, gunsel. Gutman had a hired gun, the boy, and the editor was to see him as a hired gun. However, the original definition means a young homosexual, the "female" in a relationship. Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, and the boy were all gay characters in the movie, and John Huston, the director knew it. He went ahead and let them use effeminate gestures. As one of the group members said, it ties into the mysterious lifestyle of crooks, the seamy underworld that Hammett portrayed. Did this show the possible homophobic leanings of Hammett? Even so, in the movie, Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade was a man's man. Women loved him, and men admired him.
Webb and the group discussed cynicism, and why it retains its popularity. What draws us to cynicism? We all have to deal with the world every day. Webb mentioned that it's said that if you scratch a cynic, you'll find a disappointed idealist or romantic. It's someone who hopes for a better world, but a cynic says, not on this earth.
Spade didn't expect anything good. He kind of admires the way Brigid lies, and he always laughs at her. On the other hand, Effie, his secretary, is truly good. She believes in goodness. She sees the goodness in Sam, even though she knows he's a liar and a manipulator. What did Hammett leave out in this book? He never said Effie was in love with Sam. He knew his readers would get it.
It's debated as to who invented the clipped, pared-down writing style, Hammett or Hemingway. There's no description of feelings in their books. Why did spare writing come about when it did? The discussion mentioned the Depression, and there wasn't anything beautiful. With electricity and radio, the world was brought to us. People listened to the news. They had hard lives, in the city or on the farms. Life was hard, and they could hear on the radio that it was hard for others. The time was past for the flowery phrases of the Victorian years.
According to Webb, Hammett changed literary history. Up until then, women who were not virginal in literature died to atone for their sins. Nobody is terribly virginal in The Maltese Falcon. However, readers didn't feel contempt for Effie even though Hammett had a heroine who had sex out of wedlock, and didn't die. This was a momentous book, and other writers took note.
Dashiell Hammett also wrote The Thin Man, with Nick and Nora Charles. They were played by Dick Powell and Myrna Loy in the movies. Nora had money, and Nick was a drunk, and they had a dog named Asta. These were lighthearted mysteries about high society and fun. They were glamorous.
Why did Hammett write a book that was so different? Webb said she wrote five dark, noir Lena Jones books, and she's working on the sixth. But after her last one, Desert Cut, she was depressed. Each of the novels were based on a real case. She wrote something lighter and funnier, The Anteater of Death, that will be out November 1. She has a zookeeper detective named Teddy, and an anteater named Lucy. This is her "Thin Man" series, the lighter one. She has a dual nature. Part of her sees nastiness, and the other part volunteers at the Phoenix Zoo, and is cheerful. There is a dark and light side to nature, and Hammett knew the dark and the light.
We ended the discussion talking about Sam Spade doing the right thing, and turning Brigid in. I mentioned the Ellery Queen novels set in Wrightsville, and that I was never happy because they had ambiguous endings, and people didn't always get what they deserved. Webb said she almost let the killer go in her mystery, Desert Shadows, because she felt sympathy for the killer. But Lena, being Lena, did the right thing, just as Sam Spade did in Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon.
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Vintage Books, published 1992. ISBN 0-679-72264-5 (paperback), 217p.
Betty Webb's website is www.bettywebb-mystery.com