The enduring 'Falcon'
Oline H. Cogdill
South Florida Sun Sentinel
March 4, 2008
It has been called the greatest private detective novel. While that sounds like hyperbole, few mysteries have rivaled Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon since it was published 78 years ago.
Hammett's novel has spawned three movies, including the classic 1941 version; plays for radio and stage; comics; numerous reference books; several spoofs and thousands of essays. This month, The Maltese Falcon will attract renewed interest in 15 communities across the United States as part of The Big Read, a program launched by the National Endowment for the Arts. The Florida Center for the Book in Broward County will focus on The Maltese Falcon with countywide events, including book and film discussions and cultural programs.
The Big Read is a fitting honor for The Maltese Falcon, which hasn't been out of print since its publication in 1930. With its flawed hero, interesting (and unusual) villains and intricate plot, The Maltese Falcon set up a template that still endures in the private-detective genre.
The story encompasses three of the major mystery plot motivations: greed, power and lust. Sam Spade, a tough-as-nails private detective with dubious ethics, is pulled into the hunt for a jewel-encrusted statue of a falcon that dates to the Crusades. Whether the statue exists or is merely a myth adds layers of duplicity and betrayal to the tale.
The Maltese Falcon remains as modern as ever — a timeless story equally at home in two centuries. It's rooted in the era in which it is set — 1928 — yet also seems a part of the 21st century. The novel's San Francisco locations not only still exist, but several current walking tours will take visitors to the sites mentioned. A strong sense of sexuality — both straight and gay — permeates the tale, which paradoxically also seems downright chaste because there are no graphic sex scenes.
Coming after World War I, the novel reflects a new fascination with exotic locales, a realization that the world was getting smaller and that travel to Asia and Africa was within anyone's grasp. The falcon's heritage — steeped in the myth of knights, holy wars and icons — is a forerunner of today's thrillers wrapped around historical lore, right up to Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.
The Maltese Falcon has some of the genre's most quoted lines. Yet the most famous of them — "the stuff dreams are made of" — doesn't appear in Hammett's novel. The phrase, adapted from Shakespeare's The Tempest, is only uttered by Humphrey Bogart at the end of the 1941 movie, yet it perfectly sums up the story.
Samuel Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) was called "the dean of the hard-boiled school of detective fiction" in his New York Times obituary. Hammett himself would have made a good character for his novels; the Times obit quotes an unidentified writer who said "Hammett's work was not fiction but 'life magnified.'"
Hammett spent eight years as a Pinkerton agent. He suffered from a lung ailment — the result of tuberculosis contracted while serving overseas in World War I — yet he was a chain smoker and an alcoholic. During the 1950s, he spent six months in jail for contempt of court stemming from his affiliation with several left-wing causes. His refusal to cooperate during Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee led to 300 of his novels being removed from State Department libraries around the world. The books were returned after President Eisenhower said publicly that they should not have been removed.
Hammett's clean, lean prose often has been compared to Hemingway's, and vice versa.
He wrote only five novels, all published within five years, as well as scores of short stories and novellas. His most famous character, Sam Spade, appeared only in Hammett's third novel and, later, a few short stories.
Pre-Hammett, the genre was filled with upper-class sleuths or little old ladies who dabbled in detection. Hammett moved the genre from the urbane drawing rooms to the gritty urban streets, a trend that continues.
But stereotypes of women and gays that would take some 40 years to unravel abound in The Maltese Falcon. In Spade's world, women are either pure — and sexually unattainable — or sexually active and therefore suspect.
The view of homosexuality is even more troubling. In the novel it's quite clear that villain Joel Cairo is gay, and his sexuality is subject to ridicule and pejoratives. Genre experts maintain that the word "gunsel," used to refer to the young gangster Wilber, had two meanings — a gun-toting felon and an inexperienced homosexual.
Those stereotypes persisted until Joseph Hansen introduced an openly gay detective in 1970's Fadeout,and Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton and Marcia Muller invented strong women private detectives during the early 1980s.
Hammett didn't invent the hard-boiled style of mysteries, but he did make readers take notice of it. And The Maltese Falcon is still making readers take notice.
Oline Cogdill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; blog at Sun-Sentinel.com/offthepage.