On the occasion of Dashiell Hammett's 122nd birthday, I'll bring back this post a few years ago that takes a common observation about Sam Spade and the Continental Op and applies it to two of The Maltese Falcon's major supporting characters, as well. May this stimulate you to read one of Hammett's great novels or short stories. Happy birthday, Sam.
rent Reynolds of the fine Violent World of Parker
site mixed criticism and high compliment last month
when he wrote of my Dashiell Hammett memorial post
that "The Maltese Falcon
is the greatest crime novel ever written. Not mentioned in this otherwise excellent post on Hammett."
I'd just read The Glass Key
for the first time, so that book dominated my thinking about Hammett. And testimonials from crime writers, including Reynolds' own Donald Westlake, that I included in the post indeed did not mention Hammett's most famous work.
But I'd like to reassure Trent and everyone else that I love The Maltese Falcon,
that it induces just as chilling an effect in the reader as does The Glass Key
, and that I regard it as at least as great a book. (I'd also suggest that The Maltese Falcon
's greatness is so universally acknowledged that the novel may simply be taken for granted in discussions of the best crime novel ever.)
And I'd like to add a thought to the discussion based on my recent rereading of the novel (I finished it last night.)
It's a commonplace that a Hammett hero is defined by his job, and that the job is more than just a way to bring in money. Here's Joe Gores, for example, in Dashiell Hammett Lost Stories
"Hammett saw the private detective as a manhunter. ... The Hammett hero is on the side of the law but not particularly law-abiding. He has a job to do."
When it came to Sam Spade or the Continental Op, in other words, Hammett made his plan, and he stuck to it.
I realized last night that he did just the same with Brigid O'Shaugnessy and Casper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon
. Brigid is a liar from the beginning, her rigid cleaving to her nature reinforced by Spade's early, pointed, and repeated assessments: "You're good." "You're very good." "You're a liar." "That is a lie." She adheres as rigidly to the degenerate moral code that Hammett has drawn up for her as Spade adheres to his more upright one.
Gutman, his composure only fleetingly shattered when he finds the falcon is a fake, is positively joyous when he realizes this means he can resume his globe-hopping quest for the real falcon. He is as true to his nature as Brigid O'Shaugnessy and Spade are to theirs. (Of course, his global quest extends no further than a few blocks from Spade's apartment on Post Street; he gets blown to hell and gone by Wilmer Cook a few pages later.)
But consistency of character, that sense that there is no escaping from one's nature, is part of what makes the book so gripping.
© Peter Rozovsky 2011
Labels: Dashiell Hammett, Dashiell Hammett Lost Stories, Joe Gores, The Maltese Falcon, Trent Reynolds, Violent World of Parker