Friday, April 15, 2011

Adventure classics – A little black bird

The Maltese Falcon
by Dashiell Hammett
People witnessing the U.S. Army induction in 1942 of a gaunt 48-year-old, already a veteran of the First World War, must have wondered whether they were the victims of a joke.  I wonder whether any of them knew that recruit Samuel D. Hammett was the writer of the iconic mystery The Maltese Falcon.  And whether Hammett, better known by his middle name Dashiell, astonished himself by his quixotic action.  Especially knowing, as the recruiting staff probably did not, that he was also a Communist and an alcoholic with a history of tuberculosis.  Perhaps not.  Maybe he would not even have been surprised if he had lived to see his defining work of American hard-boiled mystery chosen by Modern Library as one of the hundred best English-language novels of the twentieth century.  Astonishing events were his business, as they were for his creation, private detective Sam Spade in his search for “a statuette. . . the black figure of a bird.”

This statement by the book’s minor villain Joel Cairo introduced one of the mystery world’s most wonderful McGuffins – devices whose only purpose is to drive a story’s action.  Because Hammett’s point was not whether finding a little black bird would have consequences for anyone outside the claustrophobic world of the story.  His point was to explore the psychology of those who will stoop to murder and betrayal to find it.  And he did this using only the characters’ words and actions, never revealing their thoughts – certainly not those of Sam Spade.

I reread the book after recently seeing the 1941 film version of The Maltese Falcon – the third version, actually – with the inspired casting of Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet.  Hammett’s lean writing carried over astonishingly well in the screenplay.  Only a few scenes were cut, notably the parable-like story of Spade’s search for a missing husband and those dealing with sex.  Not that the audience had any difficulty filling in the details of Spade’s relationship with femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy.

Hammett, whose first name was Samuel – the name he gave his most famous character – contracted tuberculosis during his service with the U.S. Army in World War I.  He later worked at a variety of jobs, most notably at the Pinkerton detective agency, which gave him authentic details for his stories.  But when World War II broke out, with no novel since 1934, he must have thought his writing career was at an end.  Then came his return to Army life in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, where he received permission to start a newspaper to improve troop morale and co-authored an Army-published booklet on the Battle of the Aleutians.

In July 1945, a congressional subcommittee reportedly was incensed to learn that a non-com with Communist connections was editing an Army post newspaper.  In August, the atomic bomb code named “Fat Man,” for Maltese Falcon arch-villain Kasper Gutman, effectively ended the war.  And in September Hammett received the honorable discharge that entitled him to burial in Arlington National Cemetery after his death in 1961.

(For more details of Hammett’s WWII career, see  And, by the way, the nickname Fat Man came not from the book but from the movie version of The Maltese Falcon.  Next week:  For something completely different, Dorothy L. Sayers whimsical Whose Body?)

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