The Maltese Falcon was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1930; I got my first look at it 41 years later. I was in boarding school, an unhappy, untethered 13-year-old, and reading then was mainly a matter of escape. Having been reared to that point on a literary diet heavy in comic books, my tastes were manifestly lowbrow, and besides Batman, most of what I knew about detective fiction was what I'd learned from The Mod Squad. Comics were verboten at my school, and TV was reserved for Jacques Cousteau programs about sea turtles, but tucked away in the school library was a rich vein of decidedly pulpy fiction. By Thanksgiving I'd made my way through several dusty shelves of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Alistair MacLean, and then I discovered a high-mileage volume in worn cloth covers, with the title flaking off the spine. The Maltese Falcon Nothing was quite the same after that.
Dashiell Hammett's story is as familiar as fable by now. Private detective Sam Spade is hired by a woman to follow a man. The woman's story is questionable, but she's beautiful and pays cash, and Spade dispatches his partner, Miles Archer, to run the tail. When Archer and the man he is following are killed, the police suspect Spade. Spade soon becomes entangled in the schemes of his client, Brigid O'Shaughnessy, to obtain a fabulously valuable statuette -- the falcon -- and elude her murderous associates, including Casper Gutman and Joel Cairo. Dodging the police and the amorous Mrs. Archer, Spade matches wits with Brigid and her erstwhile colleagues, all the while angling to cut himself in on a piece of their action -- or so it seems. In the end, Spade uncovers Miles' killer and justice is served.
Fairly straightforward, but still there was a lot I didn't get that first time through. What to make of the union suit and the hand-rolled cigarettes, for example -- not to mention the crazed Wilmer Cook or the wildly sissified Cairo? And with regard to what men and women said to each other, and how they said it, and why, I didn't have a clue to how clueless I was. But those questions occurred to me only later -- after the surprise and pleasure of stumbling upon what I knew even then was a deeply subversive tome.
How else, after all, to describe a book whose main assertion is of a fundamentally corrupt world in which everybody has a price, the authorities act not out of civic duty but from grudge, personal ambition and expedience, and nearly everyone is a habitual liar? Spade sums it up nicely for his client: "Most things in San Francisco can be bought, or taken." That wasn't how things worked in Superman's Metropolis in 1971, or even in Batman's Gotham, and it was a far cry from what I'd been hearing in the classroom.
And then there was Spade himself, a man at home in this sea of fraud and manipulation, and very much in charge. Contemptuous of the powers-that-be, with one eye always on the main chance, and with the lowest possible expectations of his fellow man, Spade triumphs -- after a fashion -- by being a more deft liar than his adversaries. No Superman -- or even Spidey - - Spade was a different kind of animal for me then and, given my own issues with authority, a very engaging one.
The heroes I'd encountered before had come clearly labeled as such, and they enacted their dramas in two dimensions. Burroughs wasn't known for the complexity of his characters, and the comic books I was reading then had only just begun to jettison the ridiculous ballast of the Comics Code. The good guys might have had girlfriend problems, but their ultimate allegiances were rarely in doubt -- and never for very long. Spade was another story -- tough and competent and brave, certainly, but also bursting with appetites, anger and ambiguity.
Spade is a prince of his city, and he works its streets -- and its hotels, bars and restaurants -- with confidence, untroubled by the chaos and corruption that come his way. He's happy, in fact, to be a part of the mix. He takes a professional pride in confounding the cops, and a sadistic glee in provoking the mad gunman Wilmer. His mercantile delight in dickering with Gutman and Cairo and O'Shaughnessy -- his own client -- is plain to see. So plain, in fact, it left me wondering exactly which side of the street he was working.
But nothing was so curious to me as Spade's reaction to the murder of Miles Archer. Spade's disdain for his partner is clear from the get-go: He's having an affair with the man's wife, and Archer's body is barely cold when Spade orders his name scraped from the office door. For much of the book, his death seems no more than an irritant -- a source of unwelcome police attention and a disruption to his handy relationship with Mrs. Archer. So when he famously proclaims that "when a man's partner is killed he's supposed to do something about it," he sounded even to my 13-year-old ears like a man trying to convince himself of something.
As cool as his vices and moral haziness were to me in '71, Spade's language was even more of a draw. Not that it's particularly salty -- the ragged copy of The Godfather that was making the rounds in my dormitory at the time was racier stuff by far. It was the banter that appealed to me. Spade is profoundly cynical, and much of what he says is smart-alecky and wry -- tinged with irony, when not actually soaked in it. Irony is his sword and his shield and, combined with a quick, caustic wit, it's the locus of much of his competence. I still smile when, after his lying client tells him that the man who ran off with her sister has a wife and three children in England, Spade replies: "They usually do ... though not always in England." Three chapters later his client owns up to that lie and a few others, and is surprised to learn Spade and his partner never bought her story to begin with. "We believed your $200," Spade explains, and I still laugh.
Nowhere is the power of Spade's words more evident than in his wrangling with the unctuous Gutman and his gang. Their confrontations are as much verbal as physical, and are often quite amusing. It is to Gutman, after all -- who has just served him up several pages worth of lies and oily flattery -- that Spade makes the mocking toast: "Here's to plain speaking and clear understanding." (I'll never understand why John Huston, in his classic film adaptation, gave that line to Greenstreet and not Bogart.) In the end, Spade doesn't outshoot this bunch, or out-fight them -- he out-talks them. It was an object lesson in the utility of language and I took it to heart -- which did nothing to endear me to my teachers.
There was one other thing the Falcon offered me back then, beyond the dark worldview and Spade himself and the probably superfluous encouragement to be a wiseass. Though I couldn't have articulated it at the time, at some level I recognized that what I was reading was good writing, and better certainly than anything I'd read before. It was grown-up writing, I knew -- ambitious and concerned with serious things -- and reading it I felt grown up.
That was the beginning of what soon became a major detective fiction jones -- one that claims me to this day. After the Falcon, I went on to Hammett's other crime writing -- The Thin Man, The Dain Curse, the Continental Op stories and the rest -- and then on to Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Lawrence Block, Robert B. Parker and many others. Which makes it sound less haphazard and roundabout than it actually was. In fact, I meandered through time periods and subgenres and degrees of hardboiled-ness, and made long side trips into straight-up noir and espionage novels -- not to mention parallel expeditions into science fiction, poetry and more conventionally "literary" fiction.
I didn't have to travel far to realize that in starting with Hammett and The Maltese Falcon, I'd come in at the beginning. Spade was the PI archetype, and Hammett's fingerprints were on nearly everything that followed in that corner of the genre, and on many things beyond. They were easy to spot in the work of Chandler, MacDonald and other of his talented heirs, who built something new and powerful and entirely their own on foundations that he laid down. And they were painfully hard to miss on the pages of his many less- gifted offspring, who took what Hammett crafted and made smaller, dumber versions. So I learned early on what iconic meant, and the difference between influence and imitation.
A few years ago, after a few decades of reading it, I started to write detective fiction. Some of the blame for that falls on Hammett -- and on Chandler, MacDonald, Block, Parker and James Lee Burke too. They opened my eyes to the possibilities of crime writing, and I've returned to their work again and again over the years. I come back to savor the dialogue and the pacing, the sense of place and the indelible emotional landscapes, the clarity of the images and the sound of the words. And I come back to watch the detectives.
For me, the detective is the central mystery in the mysteries that I like best. Who he is; how he got to be that way; what he's pursuing; what's pursuing him; why he does the job and what it costs him to do it; why he makes the choices that he does: These are the questions that intrigue me, and the ones that linger long after clever plot devices fade from memory. That these questions are never neatly answered doesn't trouble me -- quite the contrary, in fact. The pleasure is in the investigation -- in watching the detective work, listening to what he says and doesn't say, and following him as he picks his way across the story's moral and emotional terrain. With each new reading there's the promise of a new insight.
But, true to form, Spade is a tough nut to crack. Hammett's close third- person narrative gives the illusion of intimacy, but reveals precious little of Spade's inner life. What we know about what drives him, we must work at. We must infer it from his actions and from what he says -- keeping in mind that his irony and fast-talk renders some of this unreliable. Spade is worth the effort, though. Beneath the icon and the Bogart version is a surprisingly complex character -- cynical and relentlessly unsentimental, but emotionally brittle and vulnerable as well. And, as he awaits the widow Archer in that bleak final scene, he is a man spent and utterly alone. Seventy-five years, and still worth watching.