The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1930)

‘You’re good. You’re very good. It’s chiefly your eyes, I think, and that throb you get into your voice when you say things like, “Be generous, Mr Spade.”‘ (p.404)

He stood beside the fireplace and looked at her with eyes that studied, weighed, judged her without pretence that they were not studying, weighing, judging her. (p.421)

Like its two predecessors, Hammett’s third novel The Maltese Falcon was originally serialised in the pulp magazine Black Mask (between September 1929 and January 1930) before being published as a one-volume novel later the same year. Unlike its two predecessors it doesn’t feature the unnamed Continental Operative as detective-hero, instead introducing Sam Spade.

Third person

The Continental Op stories are told in the first person. We overhear the Op thinking through his cases or explaining that he’s putting on this or that facial expression for his interlocutors, we watch him figuring out, guessing, taking a punt, speculating.

In contrast, the Falcon is told in the third person and this makes a real difference. We are on the outside and Hammett doesn’t give us any of the characters’ thoughts. Instead we get much more detailed descriptions of their faces and expressions and eyes than in the earlier books. Lots more. And we have to figure things out for ourselves.

For example, in the second part of the second chapter, ‘Death in the fog’, the police lieutenant, Dundy, and the detective, Tom, make an unwanted call on Spade’s apartment at 4 in the morning to push him about his partner’s murder. If it had been the first-person Continental Op we’d have been overhearing all his thoughts and calculations. But it’s in the third person so all we get is dialogue, the disposition of bodies and detailed descriptions of faces, as the two men try to outplay each other.

This approach allows much more scope for our interpretation of what’s going on, more scope for ambiguity and uncertainty, making it a much more complex and stimulating read. I’ve read comments praising Hammett’s dialogue but it’s more than a question of dialogue alone, it’s the sentences which describe the facial expressions around the dialogue which give it its power. It’s like a rally in tennis or a ballet. Thus:

The Lieutenant looked at his glass for a dozen seconds, took a very small sip of its contents, and put the glass on the table at his elbow. He examined the room with hard deliberate eyes, and then looked at Tom… Tom moved uncomfortably on the sofa and, not looking up, asked… The Lieutenant put his hands on his knees and leant forward. His greenish eyes were fixed on Spade in a peculiarly rigid stare, as if their focus were a matter of mechanics, to be changed only by pulling a lever or pressing a button… Spade smiled and waved his empty glass a little… ‘What do you want, Dundy?’ he asked in a voice hard and cold as his eyes. Lieutenant Dundy’s eyes had moved to maintain their focus on Spade’s. Only his eyes had moved… Spade made a depreciative mouth, raising his eyebrows… He stopped smiling. His upper lip, on the left side, twitched over his eyetooth. His eyes became narrow and sultry… Placidity came back to Spade’s face and voice… Lieutenant Dundy sat down and put his hands on his knees again. His eyes were warm green discs… He smiled with grim content… The wariness went out of Spade’s eyes. He made his eyes dull with boredom. He turned his face round to Tom and asked with great carelessness… Spade nodded. His face was stupid in its calmness… ‘I know where I stand now,’ he said, looking with friendly eyes from one of the police detectives to the other… Spade looked at him and smiled, holding the finished cigarette in one hand… Dundy looked with hard green eyes at Spade and did not answer him… Spade looked at the Lieutenant with yellow-grey eyes that held an almost exaggerated amount of candour… ‘We’ve asked what we came to ask,’ Dundy said, frowning over eyes hard as green pebbles… (Picador Four Great Novels edition pp.388-393)

Having a third person narrator, being on the outside of the characters and limiting himself to only reporting, in detail, the changes in their faces, expressions and eyes, paradoxically makes Falcon a much more psychological novel. Whereas the Op told us what he was thinking and when he was lying, here we have to piece it together from the outside, only from what Hammett shows us, which gives the whole text a much greater sense of psychological depth.

The merits of the respective plots play a part (Falcon is just a much better story), but I think it’s also the new-found depth derived from this approach which make the Falcon so much more appealing, more read, better known and more frequently filmed (three times) than the first two novels.

More literary?

In Harvest and Dain a lot of the reader’s effort went into, was designed to go into, trying to figure out the complexities of the plot and the characters’ motivations, before – that is – they were laid bare by the narrator in the concluding, Wind-Up chapter (in the classic detective novel style). This put them towards the pulp, genre end of the spectrum, with its focus on outlandishly complex plot machinations.

Here there is still a lot of plot, but the interest has shifted to trying to suss out the characters moment by moment in scenes which are written with much more interest in the detail of moment by moment flickers of emotion, feeling, intelligence over faces described only from the outside. Sure there’s an overarching crime plot – but there’s a lot more going on in each individual scene, a lot more portrayal of mood and personality and psychology. And this puts Falcon towards the literature end of the spectrum.

The eyes have it

I wrote a long post about the importance of eye imagery in Raymond Chandler’s novels. The same conclusions are true of this novel. Deprived of information from a first person narrator or the knowledge that comes from free indirect speech (where the text depicts the character’s thoughts as if reported by a narrator; Greene uses it all the time) we are put in the same position as the characters, having to suss out the other’s motivation from their facial expressions alone, of which the most acute and revealing facet is the expression around the eyes – smiling, hard, crying, cruel, cold etc.

So, chapter four describes Spade’s visit to Mrs Wonderley aka Brigid O’Shaughnessy who slowly reveals a bit more of the secret, and their sparring is depicted in the dialogue, of course, but also in their facial expressions and particularly in the state of their eyes.

His smile brought a fainter smile to her face… Her eyes, of blue that walmost violet, did not lose their troubled look… Spade smiled a polite smile which she did not lift her eyes to see… she stammered, and looked up at him now with miserable frightened eyes… Perplexity was added to the misery and fright in her eyes… Her eyes suddenly lighted up… Her face had become haggard around desperate eyes… She squirmed on her end of the settee and her eyes wavered between heavy lashes, as if trying and failing to free their gaze from his… (pp.401-403)

The same happens at every dialogue, that is throughout the book, on almost every page: the play of facial expressions and especially the state of the eyes reveals/conceals just as much as the spoken words. There was less in the first two books because there was so much action, shooting and blasting.

  • Sam Spade: yellow-grey eyes (p.408) ‘His eyes were shiny in a wooden satan’s face.’ (p.423)
  • Effie Perine: brown eyes (p.396)
  • Brigid O’Shaughnessy: cobalt-blue eyes (p.375) ‘Her eyes were cobalt-blue prayers.’ (p.423)
  • Lieutenant Dundy: hard green eyes (p.392)
  • Casper Gutman: dark and sleek (p.466) ‘The fat man’s eyes were dark gleams in ambush behind pink puffs of flesh.’ (p.469)
  • Joel Cairo: black eyes (p.538)
  • Wilmer Cook: small hazel eyes (p.456) ‘The boy’s eyes were cold hazel gleams under his lashes.’ (p.534)
  • Luke the hotel detective: crafty brown eyes (p.457)

Spade is sexy

The Continental Op emphasised to twenty-year-old Gabrielle Leggett that he was old, middle-aged, forty, and past making a pass at her. He is very close to Dinah Bird in Harvest but never makes a move on her or even contemplates it for a second.

By contrast Sam Spade is sexy, looking ‘rather pleasantly like a blond satan’. He is the regulation six foot tall and

  • he has a comfortably flirtatious relationship with his secretary
  • he has been having an affair with his partner’s wife
  • he handles Miss O’Shaughnessy’s passes at him with savoir faire until he decides to go ahead and sleep with her
  • he pats the secretary at the hotel’s shoulder in a calm confident way

He is portrayed as knowing his way around women, how to manage and handle women, in a way the Op couldn’t. He has a free, easy and confident way with women as with men, as with life. However, he himself says there is a problem with his attitude which is that he only really knows how to flirt with women, implying he doesn’t know how to treat them as just people; whether his Miss Moneypenny-ish relationship with his secretary Effie proves or disproves this is open to debate.

If you were to indict him, central would be the way he betrays Brigid after sleeping with her (and making her strip naked in his apartment to search her) – though he has by that time established that she shot his partner dead in cold blood. And then there’s his shabby treatment of his partner’s widow, Iva – though that seems realistically messy. Nobody’s claiming he’s a saint.

From the outside

Over the course of the novel it becomes very striking how deliberately Hammett describes all the humans in it from the outside as if they’re robots. He describes their movements as if observing animals, pedantically noting every move and flicker. This has a very unsettling effect. Take this, Spade furtively unlocking his office door in case there are intruders inside:

He put his hand to the knob and turned it with care that permitted neither rattle nor click. He turned the knob until it would turn no further; the door was locked. Holding the knob still, he changed hands, taking it now in his left hand. With his right hand he brought his keys out of his pocket, carefully, so they could not jingle against one another. He separated the office key from the others and, smothering the others together in his palm, inserted the office key in the lock. The insertion was soundless. He balanced himself on the balls of his feet, filled his lungs, clicked the door open, and went in. (p.490)

Maybe it’s meant to be building up tension, but the basic idea – he unlocked the door carefully – needn’t have been described this meticulously nor stretched out to this length. Why do it? For the immediacy? To make the reader feel like they’re watching every minute movement? And the same technique is applied to scenes with no tension, when he’s kissing Brigid or rolling a cigarette or sitting on a chair. All described in pedantic and very externalised detail.

If the above is a description of a purely physical act, the following is a small example of what happens in almost every dialogue ie Hammett not only records the words spoken, but describes in minute detail the physical behaviour of each of the participants.

 Spade said, ‘Yes,’ very lazily. His face was sombre. He touched his lower lip with a finger, looked at the finger, and then scratched the back of his neck with it. Little irritable lines had appeared in his forehead. He blew his breath out heavily through his nose and his voice was an ill-humoured growl. ‘You wouldn’t want the kind of information I could give you, Bryan.’ (p.506)

Vocabulary

There’s two or three slang terms in the novel (‘fog’ = kill p.537) but the switch to the third person has allowed Hammett to drop a lot of the patois which the Continental Op used in his racy narration. The slang now only occurs in the dialogue of the characters. Something that stands out on a handful of occasions is Hammett’s use of unusually formal, technical and Latinate vocabulary. It’s as if he wanted to distance himself from his pulp milieu, or was experimenting with a more detached vocabulary, complimenting the more detached, external, objective style of description mentioed above.

  • an ellipsoid p.513
  • incoordinate steps p.518
  • in her mien was pride p.551

Related links

Edition of Black Mask magazine containing the first instalment of The Maltese Falcon

Cover of the September 1929 edition of Black Mask magazine containing the first instalment of The Maltese Falcon

Hammett’s five novels

  • Red Harvest (February 1, 1929) The unnamed operative of the Continental Detective Agency uncovers a web of corruption in Personville. There’s a lot of violence, shoot-outs on almost every page, plus the individual murders.
  • The Dain Curse (July 19, 1929) The Continental Op is dragged into three episodes involving members of the Dain family: first the French ex-con posing as Dr Leggett is murdered and his wife shot; then the daughter Gabrielle involved in murders at a weird cult; then the husband who has loved her all along is killed and, while the Op is detoxing the morphine addict, the truth of the long sorry saga is revealed.
  • The Maltese Falcon (February 14, 1930) Drastically different in feel from the previous two murder-fests and told in the third person: detective Sam Spade solves the mystery of three murders surrounding a mysterious jewel-encrusted medieval statuette, and deals with the colourful trio of crooks who are prepared to kill for it: Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Joel Cairo and Casper Gutman.
  • The Glass Key (April 24, 1931)
  • The Thin Man (January 8, 1934)
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