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     ROBERT CRAIS: ON HAMMETT

“If they hang you I’ll always remember you.”

     The best known crime novel ever written is The Maltese Falcon. Don’t take my word for it, prove it to yourself: Go to the mall, ask total strangers (even people who’ve never read a book), and--after you’ve explained what a crime novel is--nine times out of ten they’ll describe Sam Spade’s search for the black bird.
     I’m the first to admit that they’ll be thinking of the movie with Humphrey Bogart, but that’s okay. The very best parts of the movie are all right here in Dashiell Hammett’s brilliant novel: smarmy, mincing Joel Cairo (played flawlessly by Peter Lorre); the young gunsel, Wilmer, wound so tight that he’s about to explode (perfectly rendered by Elisha Cook, Jr.); gluttonous Casper Gutman (don’t you just love that name?), with his willingness to sell out anyone and anything for the Falcon; Brigid O’Shaunessey’s deceitful, manipulative whore; and the novel’s signature hero, Samuel Spade.
     Even the best lines and moments in the movie are original to the book: Spade slapping Joel Cairo as he declares, “When you’re slapped you’ll take it and like it”; Spade stripping the gunsel’s weapons, smirking, “C’mon, this will put you in solid with your boss.”
     It’s all here in Dashiell Hammett’s layered and complex novel.
     As a work of hardboiled fiction, The Maltese Falcon has everything: lies, deceit, double-cross, misdirection, violence, brutality, and a breathtaking coldness. When Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, is found murdered, Spade expresses not a shred of pain or grief, and, in short order, we learn that Spade was having an affair with Archer’s wife, and didn’t even like the man. Spade milks clients for as much money as he can squeeze, lies to damn near everyone, and breaks the law as a matter of course, apparently willing to overlook the murder of his partner and multiple homicides for sex and a few thousand dollars. When a woman with whom Spade has slept is about to be arrested for murder, the warmest statement he can manage is, “If they hang you I’ll always remember you.” My friends, that is frosty. Hammett even describes Sam Spade as looking like Satan, his face a stack of sharp V’s that conjures the image of a hatchet-faced man built of cold steel.
     But, waitaminute.
     If Spade is truly the rat he makes out to be as he swaggers and bluffs his way through the crime-ridden underbelly of San Francisco, would we, his readers, become so enamored of him that we would invest ourselves in him and his ultimate success or failure? Would we care?
     Spade isn’t the one-dimensional character that so many private eyes were during the legendary Black Mask days, and Hammett was anything but a one-dimensional writer. Dashiell Hammett deftly presents us with subtle clues that Spade isn’t nearly so hardboiled as he pretends, and isn’t nearly the rat. Hammett reveals Spade to be a complicated man, with often confusing and all-too-human layers. As the novel unfolds, we find ourselves questioning Spade’s motives, asking ourselves what Spade might be up to, and why is he putting himself at such risk? Multiple homicides have been committed, and Spade might be the next body to drop. The police suspect Spade’s involvement, and are hot on his trail. Is Spade really going to such extremes for a few thousand dollars? Does he really give a damn about the Maltese Falcon, or Brigid O’Shaunessey?
     Or is Sam Spade a man more worthy of our trust?
     Hammett layers in doubt and clues: After unloading a high hand on Gutman and his punk gunsel, Spade stalks out, revealing only after the scene that he was trembling with fear; Spade’s affair with Archer’s wife is first presented as an unimportant fling, yet is later revealed to have been so serious that they had discussed her divorcing Archer, and it’s hinted that perhaps Spade hadn’t been able to bring himself to comfort or even approach her until the case was resolved. Finally, when the truth is out and the falcon is revealed to be nothing more than a leaden dream, Hammett allows Spade to express his true motivation (“When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it”) and the ultimate truth of his character (“Don’t be too sure I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be”).
     It is a testament to Hammett’s brilliance that the reader can sense these things about Spade even as we’re presented with evidence to the contrary.
     Sam Spade was worth rooting for all along, and is more than deserving of being our “hero” because The Maltese Falcon is about friendship. It’s about duty, and obligation, even when we don’t like our friend very much, and about doing the right thing even when it costs money, and hurts the people for whom we care. Its subtle themes have influenced not only myself, but everyone else who has or will toil in the fertile fields of crime fiction. Hammett’s influence on succeeding generations of crime novelists is undeniable, and this influence almost universally extends from this novel.
     The Maltese Falcon is what the movie people call “a buddy picture.” Only in this case, one of the buddies has been murdered, and the surviving buddy risks everything to bring the killer or killers to justice.
     As of this writing, I have produced eight novels chronicling the lives of my own fictional detectives, Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. In the most recent, L. A. Requiem, Elvis Cole’s partner, Joe Pike, is accused of murder. Even though witnesses and all the evidence supports that accusation, Elvis Cole--who has nothing more to go on than an unwavering belief in his partner--risks his license, his own freedom, his life, and his relationship with the woman he loves in his efforts to save his friend.
     All eight titles are, at their core, books about the values that most of us hold dear, and most of us share.
     Duty. Obligation. Friendship. Loss.
     I have based my career upon these themes, and their corruption. They hail back to the beginnings of drama, and to the hero’s journey. Their appeal, I think, is to the animal part of us that seeks comfort in the company of others on cold nights when death lurks beyond the light of the campfire. They affirm that there exists some sort of moral order, and that justice will prevail, or, at least, some good man or woman will die trying to preserve that order.
     Sam Spade is the friend we need in trying times. He is our taunting big brother, our brutal father, the schoolyard bully who has seen the error of his ways and now defends us. He is the man we want in our corner because he will stop at nothing to save us, or, if need be, avenge us. It is Spade’s humanity that we feel, and which Hammett so brilliantly illuminates, and it is that humanity to which we respond.
     Rereading this novel again after so many years, I was taken with how quickly I fell into the world that Hammett created, how sharp I found the dialog and descriptions, how compelling I found the story and characters. If you are about to read this classic novel for the first time, you are in for a treat.
     The Maltese Falcon was first published in 1930. It has lived and thrived in all the years since, and it will live on, because, like all great fiction, it connects us with our true selves.

© 1999 by Robert Crais


   
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