Double Indemnity by James M. Cain (1936)

Cain wasn’t pleased at being lumped in with other ‘hard-boiled’ writers of the 20s and 30s.

I make no conscious effort to be tough, or hard-boiled, or grim, or any of the things I am usually called. I merely try to write as the character would write, and I never forget that the average man, from the fields, the streets, the bars, the offices, and even the gutters of his country, has acquired a vividness of speech that goes beyond anything I could invent, and that if I stick to this heritage, this logos of the American countryside, I shall attain a maximum of effectiveness with very little effort. (Preface to Double Indemnity)

And that he certainly does. Double Indemnity was his second book after the blisteringly intense The Postman Always Rings Twice, appearing as a magazine serialisation in 1936, then in a collection of novellas, only published as a stand-alone book in 1943.

As in Postman you are immediately gripped by the urgency and immediacy of the first-person voice, here of a fast-talking insurance salesman called Huff. On the first page he calls on a prospective client whose servant asks the nature of the call.

‘And what’s the business?’
‘Personal.’
Getting in is the tough part of my job, and you don’t tip what you came for till you get where it counts… It was one of those spots you get in. If I said some more about ‘personal’ I would be making a mystery of it and that’s bad. If I said what I really wanted, I would be laying myself open to what every insurance agent dreads, that she would come back and say, ‘Not in’. If I said I’d wait, I would be making myself look small, and that never helped a sale yet. To move this stuff, you’ve got to get in. Once you’re in, they’ve got to listen to you, and you can pretty near rate an agent by how quick he gets to the family sofa, with his hat on one side of him and his dope sheets on the other. (Chapter 1)

No slang, no shooting. The ‘hard-boiledness’ stems from the psychology of the character: his unrelenting calculatingness, scanning all the angles, perceiving and using others as tools to his end, assuming everyone else is doing the same. It is the war of all against all, as Marx described capitalism. No sentiment, just a predator scheming his next move. Later there’s a femme fatale and a murder then a load of complications. But the tone of heartlessness, amorality, anything for a buck, is there from the first lines. Strip away Mom and Apple Pie and this is, and was sidely seen at the time as being, the American Way. That unbridled capitalism turns people back into savages.

Femme fatale

Both the women in these books feature in the Wikipedia article defining a femme fatale as an attractive woman who seduces a man into committing a crime/murder. This is truer of Phyllis Nirdlinger in Indemnity, who persuades insurance salesman Walter Huff to put a life policy on her husband then murder him. Sure, she’s got a babelicious body etc which she uses to sway him, but it’s more that she presents an opening, a willing partner, to something he’s been incubating after 15 long years in the insurance business ie the perfect insurance scam.

Is she a femme fatale? She’s certainly given a rather melodramatic speech.

‘There’s something in me, I don’t know what. Maybe I’m crazy. But there’s something in me that loves Death. I think of myself as Death, sometimes. In a scarlet shroud, floating through the night. I’m so beautiful, then. And sad. And hungry to make the whole world happy, by taking them out where I am, into the night, away from all trouble, all unhappiness…’ (Ch 2)

(These books are odd. At one moment they’re heartless, cruel indictments of man’s inhumanity masquerading in an everyman tone, and the next they’re grand operas. Phyllis’s speech is like a tragic aria.)

Feminist criticism would suggest that Cora and Phyllis represent one of the crudest stereotypes of the female, an age-old cliché of the woman who represents the desired and the taboo, that once you give into her sexual wiles you are lured all unwary over the boundary of morality into a World of Crime. A honey trap. The desired deceiver.

It’s true in both novels the first-person narrator is the man, and the woman is seen as a siren, powerful through her sex appeal, who is the proximate cause of a murder. Both only exist through the male text. Neither have defining agency. But neither Cora nor Phyllis is a siren luring the unwitting. Both Chambers and Huff are hardly innocent, are already criminals or have been planning crime for a long time.

In fact, from one angle, the woman in these novels is surprisingly equal with the men, in the sense that they are equally amoral and greedy and murderous. They conspire on about the same level and they are both as physically involved in the murder, Cora getting badly battered in the fake car crash, Phyllis lumbering along with her husband’s corpse on her back as in a nightmare. The only real difference is that, being written from the man’s point of view, the novels convey a very powerful (in Postman overwhelmingly powerful) sense of the man’s sexual attraction to his partner. But there is no doubting the intensity of Cora’s sexual attraction to Frank, or of Phyllis’s cunning deployment of her sexuality to co-opt Huff into her schemes. The novels could theoretically be rewritten from the woman’s point of view giving her at least parity.

The unsung hero

The sex-driven duo may fuel the first part of these novels, but the second half strongly involves the Antagonist, the figure who threatens all their plans, who threatens, quite simply, to expose them as murderers. In Postman it’s Stickett the District Prosecutor (though his role is counterbalanced by the smart defence lawyer Katz); in Indemnity it’s Huff’s boss at the insurance company, Keyes, who makes Huff’s (and the reader’s) blood run cold by slowly piecing together what really happened while all the time Huff has to pretend to be helping to uncover his own crime.

This is where both novels make their impact – the blood-chilling descriptions of the murder itself are bad enough, but both novels then score with the tremendous tension of watching the Antagonist know the Protagonist is guilty, telling him he knows he’s guilty, and then trying to prove it. Their pursuit, their detective work, their thoroughness makes the Protagonist’s heart miss a beat, and the immediate visceral first-person narrative means ours do, too.

The lights began to look funny in front of my eyes… He was all wrong on how it was done, but he was so near right it made my lips turn numb just to listen to him… My legs felt funny and my ears rang, but my eyes kept staring at the dark, and my mind kept pounding on it, what I was going to do. I didn’t know. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t even get drunk. (Ch 8)

Morality

Cain’s books really are directly and immediately about sex and murder in a way surprisingly few of, say, Dashiell Hammett’s are; Hammett’s are about fiendishly cunning investigations of often convoluted events or, as in The Glass Key, generate scores of pages of continually shifting theorising around a death which remains a mystery, at the core of the text.

In Cain there is no mystery and no pages of theorising. It is an adrenaline-fuelled, straightahead, no-nonsense narrative of a murder inspired by the illicit sexual attraction between the murderers and the dreadful consequences, the fear, the guilt and the reprisals. It is hard-boiled. It is noir.

It is, in fact, not really so immoral as contemporaries worried. In both the bad guy loses and is punished. The murderer Frank Chambers loses the sexpot who inspired him, Cora, in a car crash and then is convicted and hanged for murder. Huff discovers Phyllis had killed before and was simply using him to bump off her  husband, he is nearly shot dead by her, confesses to Keyes, is packed off for everyone’s convenience on a foreign cruise under a different name, where he meets her again like the avenging angel, they make a bizarre suicide pact and leap from the ship to their deaths.

Ie Justice is done, if not by man’s feeble justice system, then by the gods.

Movie versions

Made into a famois film noir,  directed by Billy Wilder with a screenplay part-written by Raymond Chandler, and starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson. The rather florid ending is notably rewritten to become a simpler, more tense encounter in her house where the lovers-turned-haters pull guns on each other and both shoot.

Related links

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett (1934)

‘I don’t believe it,’ she said. ‘You made it up. There aren’t any people like that. What’s the matter with them? Are they the first of a new race of monsters?’
‘I just tell you what happens; I don’t explain it.’ (p.100)

After four novels of hard-faced, no-nonsense brutality and cunning (as well as the fifty or so short stories he wrote from 1922 to 34 or so) who’d have that expected Hammett’s fifth (and final) novel would be a comedy, and a genuinely funny one at that.

It’s a return to the first-person narrator (as in Red Harvest and The Dain Curse) but instead of hard-bitten cops, this one belongs to Nick Charles who is an affable forty-one year-old ex-detective who lazes round in top hotels on the money of his charming and loaded wife, Nora, going to parties and drinking almost continually.

He is reluctantly dragged back into the detective business when the daughter of a former client turns up (Dorothy Wynant), helplessly drunk, her mother (Mimi) is revealed as a violent hysteric, her stepfather (Jorgensen) tries to hit on her and the aforementioned client (eccentric inventor Howard Wynant) is implicated in shooting his secretary (Julia Wolf) to death and, to cap it all, a hoodlum sent by a former client, bursts in to their luxury hotel room and tries to shoot him. It’s the she secretary shooting that becomes the core of a standard murder mystery.

Whodunnit? Nick has to find out and the text consists of decreasing amount of action and increasing amounts of theory-spinning as all the characters behave suspiciously while weaving complicated theories implicating each other. The plot itself is relatively simple but the theory spinning eventually becomes rather tiresome. But it’s not the plot, it’s the nonchalant savoir faire and humorous banter, particularly between Nick and Nora, which make this a genuinely amusing read.

Nora screwed up her dark eyes at me and asked slowly: ‘What are you holding out on me?’
‘Oh dear,’ I said, ‘I was hoping I wouldn’t have to tell you. Dorothy is really my daughter. I didn’t know what I was doing, Nora. It was spring in Venice and I was so young and there was a moon over the – ‘
‘Be funny. Don’t you want something to eat?’ (Penguin 1961 paperback edition, p.18)

Hammett uses the same approach as the previous novels ie little or no direct access to the characters’ thoughts instead deploying predominantly dialogue or the description of externals – rooms, clothes, appearances, facial expressions. But whereas in the predecessors the dialogue was hard-edged and designed to show the characters’ alienation from each other, indifference to each other, here the tone – even if venturing for spells into tough guy stuff with cops or crims – always returns to the comfy banter between the married couple at the heart of it, or to Nick’s deadpan jokiness.

So far I had known just where I stood on the Wolf-Wynant-Jorgensen troubles and what I was doing – the answers were, respectively, nowhere and nothing. (p.28)

The confidante

It is just so damned handy to have a partner or confidente, someone the protagonist-hero-detective can share his thinking with, who can pick him up and dust him down and encourage and support. A sidekick, someone to spar with. Don Quixote had his Sancho Panza, Holmes has Watson; pairing wise guy Nick who knows his way round the underworld with smart socialite Nora, for whom the dark underbelly is a revelation, is a clever manouevre. Violence or plot twists which just seems random and therefore alienating in Falcon and Key, can here be situated and contextualised by being explained to Nora. Even if there isn’t an exact explanation – at least we know there isn’t an exact explanation, instead of being puzzled by random and often brutal violence as we often were in the previous novels.

Nora was wide-eyed and amazed. ‘It’s a madhouse,’ she said. ‘What’d they do that for?’
‘You know as much about it as I do,’ I told her…
‘Listen, you’ve got to tell me what happened – everything. Not now, tomorrow. I don’t understand a thing that was said or a thing that was done.’ (pp.118-119)

Movie versions

When it’s not disappearing into more and more complicated theory-spinning, The Thin Man has the feel of the wisecracking movies of the period, all fix-me-another-drink-dahling. It comes as no surprise to discover it was not only made into a movie starring William Powell and Myrna Loy (1934) but that the movie was so popular it spawned no fewer than five sequels, which were being release well into the 1940s.

American boozing

Part of the humour – or the humorous backdrop to the comedy – is the couple’s continuous and compulsive drinking, partying and eating out. Reminds me of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

‘My nice policeman wants to see you,’ she said. ‘How do you feel?’
‘Terrible. I must have gone to bed sober.’ (p.47)

‘Where’d you get the skinful?’
‘It’s Alice. She’s been sulking for a week. If I didn’t drink I’d go crazy.’
‘What’s she sulking about?’
‘About my drinking.’ (p.104)

‘How about a drop of something to cut the phlegm?’
‘Why don’t you stay sober today?’
‘We didn’t come to New York to stay sober.’ (p.143)

It seems like such an incongruous vibe during the depths of the Depression to be putting out fictions about humongously rich people leading boozy lifestyles, parties, opening nights, jazz… Then again, taken as a consumer product, this novel is more like the fantasies of Hollywood which were at their most silken and sparkly when the Depression was at its bleakest. Entertainment. Distraction. Fantasy.

She laughed… ‘Still want to leave for San Francisco tomorrow?’
‘Not unless you’re in a hurry. Let’s stick around for a while. This excitement has put us behind in our drink.’ (p.189)

The Thin Man

Turns out the missing scientist they’re all looking for, who remains elusive despite his phone calls, letters and fleeting visits: he was always very tall and thin but Nick is the first to realise he’s dead.

‘What was that joke about a guy being so thin he had to stand in the same place twice to throw a shadow?’
I laughed – not at the joke – and said: ‘Wynant’s not that thin, but he’s thin enough, say as thin as the paper in that cheque and in these letters people have been getting.’
‘What’s that?’ Guild demanded, his face reddening, his eyes angry and suspicious.
‘He’s dead. He’s been dead a long time except on paper.’ (p.179)

Songs mentioned in the text

“Though her life was merry (though her life was merry)
She had savoir-ferry (lots of savoir-ferry)”


Related link

The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett (1931)

Ned Beaumont did not say anything. His face was expressionless. (p.153)

Narrated in the third person, this feels like a further move away from Hammett’s origins in that, yes it involves crime and murder, but it is not focused on a detective solving the crimes and leading us through the maze of misleading information to a clear understanding of events, as were his first three novels.

It’s more an exploration of the world of Ned Beaumont (‘Im a gambler and a politician’s hanger-on’ p.155), a tough fixer for gang-leader-going-straight Paul Madvig, who’s running an election campaign when the son of the Senator they’re supporting is found dead and all his enemies start blaming it on Madvig. Beaumont:

  • follows a crooked bookie who owes him money to New York, gets beaten up before framing the bookie & getting his money
  • tries to get to the bottom of the murder of Senator’s son Taylor Henry
    • finding out who’s sending anonymous letters blaming Paul
    • dealing with the newspaper editor who’s going to print a front page exposé of Paul
    • when the editor commits suicide, going to extreme lengths to get the next day’s revelations canned
  • gets kidnapped and badly beaten by the thugs of rival gangster Shad O’Rory
  • manages the spineless District Attorney’s handling of the case
  • deals with the Senator’s daughter, Janet, who Madvig loves but who hates him
  • goads the psychopath Jeff into strangling O’Rory

Style

Again there’s an odd discrepancy between the street slang of the characters and the sometimes ornate vocabulary and rather mannered style of the narrating voice.

1. Slang terms

  • buzzer = police badge (p.31)
  • licked = beaten (p.31)
  • take a Mickey Finn = leave in the lurch (p.32)
  • unkdray = too much booze, hungover (p.46)
  • drop the shuck on someone = frame them (p.49)
  • keysters = (p.83)
  • ducat = ticket (p.83)
  • smeared = closed, shut down (p.85)
  • iron = car (p.127)
  • it’s a pipe that = it’s a certainty that (p.169)
  • roscoe = gun (p.197)
  • screw = depart (p.198) cf blow

2. Mannered narrator

His walnut desk-top was empty except for a telephone and a large desk-set of green onyx whereon a nude metal figure holding aloft an airplane stood on one foot… (p.58)

Farr smote his desk again. (p.63)

Ned Beaumont’s mien had become sympathetic when he transferred his gaze to the shorter man’s china-blue eyes. (p.66) Alarm joined astonishment in her mien. (p.123) Though he was attentive there was no curiosity in his mien. (p.148) The round-faced youth to whom he said it left the outer office, returning a minute later apologetic of mien. (p.163) There was as little of weakness in her voice as in her mien. (p.202)

Silence was between them awhile then. (p.86)

Ned Beaumont looked, with brown eyes wherein hate was a dull glow that came from beneath the surface, at the card players and began to get out of bed. (p.94)

When it became manifest that he was not going to speak she said earnestly… (p.107)

She drew away from his hand and fixed him with severe penetrant eyes again. (p.119)

Her blue eyes wherein age did not show became bright and keen. (p.123)

These are deliberate choices, out-dated vocabulary, Victorian phraseology. It’s odd that a style which goes out of its way to be like this can be considered the father of the hard-boiled style when it is in fact a little ornate and mannered.

What does ‘hard-boiled’ mean?

The plot isn’t particularly violent (to be precise: Ned gets hit in New York, then imprisoned & badly beaten by Shad’s men; Taylor Henry is knocked over, fractures his skull and dies; the newspaper editor Mathews shoots himself; the drunk psychopath Jeff strangles his boss O’Rory; Opal, Paul’s sister, slashes her wrists – it’s nothing compared to the earlier bloodbaths).

It isn’t a formal detective story at all since there are no detectives involved (though the mystery of Taylor Henry’s death does come to dominate more and more).

The style doesn’t have the dazzling panache, the tough guy charisma, of Raymond Chandler.

What Falcon and this one have in common – and what ‘hard-boiled’ may mean in practice – is that they both completely and utterly exclude any insight into the minds of the characters. Everything psychological is rigorously excluded for the text. When I compare it with the hundreds of pages of Graham Greene’s novels devoted to nothing but the characters’ thoughts and memories and feelings and impressions and anxieties and fears – Hammett’s novels seem like fleshless skeletons. There isn’t a flicker of warmth or humanity about them.

Instead of any of the thoughts and feelings you associate with the novel, you get minute and detailed descriptions of the outside of the characters: of the precise movements of every part of their bodies; exactly how they roll a cigarette or open a door; exactly what every part of their body does in a fight, with lecture-hall anatomical precision; and minute descriptions of their faces, especially the changing expressions of their eyes.

Mechanical habits: Thus Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon has a way of pinching his lower lip between thumb and forefinger (a mannerism portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in the 1941 movie); in Key Ned is given the habit of brushing his moustache with a thumbnail (eg p.175, 187).

Robots

The reader is challenged to figure out what is going on in everyone’s minds from this external evidence alone. Initially this is a challenge but quite quickly I relapsed into the odd sensation that I was observing robots. They talk. They move. But they appear to have no insides at all.

Ned Beaumont’s face, after a grimace of rage at the closed door, became heavily thoughtful. Lines came into his forehead. His dark eyes grew narrow and introspective. His lips puckered up under his moustache. Presently he put a finger to his mouth and bit a nail. He breathed regularly, but with more depth than usual. (p.116)

He became thoughtful. But we are not told what he is thinking about. We are never told what he is thinking about. Nowhere in the entire novel do we learn what Ned is thinking about. Instead we are given details of his breathing patterns. This epitomises the No Depth, Only Surfaces modality which Hammett has adopted. Is it this, this deliberate rejection of the humanist tradition of the novel which developed over three centuries to explore people’s feelings and psyches with growing subtlety and insight – this rejection which makes these books ‘hard-boiled’?

Ned Beaumont’s eyes widened a little, but only for a moment. His face lost some of its colour and his breathing became irregular. There was no change in his voice. (p.119)

It could be said that Hammett is more interested in his characters’ physiology than in their thoughts. Their thoughts are concealed within the black box of his prose. All we get is unnecessarily detailed descriptions of their precise physical movements. Sam Spade attacking Joel Cairo or pulling Wilmer’s coat down over his arms to get his guns are good examples from The Maltese Falcon. Here, Janet Henry has just heard her father accused of murder.

For a moment Janet Henry was still as her father. Then a look of utter horror came into her face and she sat down slowly on the floor. She did not fall. She slowly bent her knees and sank down on the floor in a sitting position, leaning to the right, her right hand on the floor for support, her horrified face turned up to her father and Ned Beaumont. (p.211)

Not now or at any other time are we told anything about her feelings at this devastating revelation. We simply see her crumpling like a broken marionette described very precisely.

Nothingness

Again and again and again the narration emphasises that these people acting like robots have no feelings, no emotions, no investment in what they’re saying or doing. Is it this emotional coolness, this nullity of affect, which makes these novels ‘hard-boiled’? It is as if the text is hypnotised, rotates around, gravitates towards, and is continually trying to achieve this state of emptiness. Blankness. Nothingness.

He rose from the sofa and crossed to the fireplace to drop the remainder of his cigar into the fire. When he returned to his seat he crossed his long legs and leaned back at ease. ‘The other side thinks it’s good politics to make people think that,’ he said. There was nothing in his voice, his face, his manner to show that he had any personal interest in what he was talking about. (p.149)

Ned Beaumont was looking with eyes that held no particular expression at the blond man and his voice was matter-of-fact. (p.169)

Ned Beaumont nodded. His face had suddenly become empty of all expression except hard concentration on Madvig’s words. (p.171)

Jack said nothing. His face told nothing of his thoughts. (p.186)

Janet stirred, but did not rise from the floor. Her face was blank. (p.212)

Related links

Pulp cover of The Glass Key

Pulp cover of The Glass Key

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 adventures of Ned Beaumont, fixer for reformed gangster Paul Madvig, as he copes with a rival gangster, a corrupt DA, a pliant newspaper editor, and various difficult dames in the run-up to an election Paul must win.
  • The Thin Man (January 8, 1934)

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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