The mysterious femme fatale. The jaded private eye. The rare object worth killing for. Dashiell Hammett invented all these classic elements of noir fiction with his 1930 breakthrough novel, The Maltese Falcon. But how did Hammet dream up this dark, new world of literature? By writing from experience.
In the 1920s, the world needed a new detective. Fiction was overrun with weak Sherlock Holmes imitators— erudite puzzle solvers who refused to get their hands dirty. Enter Dashiell Hammett, a former private investigator turned writer. In The Maltese Falcon, Hammett took the detective out of the drawing room, dumped him in a dark alley, and created an American classic.
THE REAL MCCOY
Unlike other mystery novelists, Dashiell Hammett really was a detective. Born in 1894, Hammett quit school at age 14 to help earn money for his family. After a string of low-paying jobs, he became an operative with San Francisco’s Pinkerton Detective Agency in 1915. There, he adopted a code that would define his life: Create a barrier between yourself and the rest of the world.
As an investigator, Hammett tailed drug smugglers and shadowed unfaithful spouses. Once, he even tracked down a stolen Ferris wheel. But when World War I erupted, Hammett took a break from agency life and joined the Army.
Shortly after arriving in France to begin his service, Hammett contracted chronic tuberculosis. And when he returned to the States, he wasn’t the same. He found himself increasingly at odds with the Pinkerton assignments, which often involved breaking up strikes and infiltrating labor unions. Plus, the TB made it difficult to continue full-time work. With a wife and child to support, Hammett needed a new profession, and because he’d always been a fan of detective stories, he decided to try his hand at writing. To his delight, he sold one of his first tales, “The Road Home,” to a pulp magazine called Black Mask. The editor praised Hammett’s boldness and authenticity. But Hammett was only following advice he’d gotten from a journalism class: Write what you know.
Two novels and several short stories later, Hammett was a staple of the pulps. Still, he had higher aspirations. As he wrote to his editor in 1928, “Someday, somebody’s going to make literature out of detective stories, and I’m selfish enough to have my hopes.”
In 1930, Hammett’s dream was realized with The Maltese Falcon. A popular hit, the novel went through five printings in its first year alone. By 1934, it had earned Hammett more than $80,000 in royalties, a huge sum in Depression-era America. Meanwhile, the novel catapulted Hammett into new literary circles and earned him comparisons to Ernest Hemingway.
The story opens with a now-textbook device: An alluring damsel in distress named Miss Wonderly visits the office of private detective Sam Spade and his partner, Miles Archer. She’s come to San Francisco in search of her sister, who ran off with a man named Floyd Thursby. Spade and Archer take her case, but when Archer turns up dead that night, Spade suspects a set-up. The next day, the plot thickens when a soft-spoken man named Joel Cairo offers Spade $5,000 to find a missing object, a statuette of a falcon. Before Spade agrees to help, Cairo pulls a gun on him and demands to search his office, believing that Miss Wonderly has left the falcon in Spade’s care. Spade knocks Cairo out cold, and there begins the “mess of a case,” where nothing is as it seems.
In Hammett’s narrative, we’re never told what Spade is thinking. We only get his “tight smiles” and “narrowed yellow eyes.” Riding shotgun through the fistfights and tangled sheets, we discover each clue as it’s found and are allowed to reach our conclusions along with Spade. It’s this kind of virtual sleuthing that helped Hammett reinvent the detective novel.
INTERNATIONAL MAN OF MYSTERY
Sam Spade was the James Bond of his era—tough, smoldering, and committed to his job above all else. Women wanted him, and men wanted to be him. Hammett called him “a dream man,” and thanks to The Maltese Falcon and its best-selling follow-ups, The Glass Key and The Thin Man, Hollywood came calling.
With money and fame, Hammett divorced his wife and cut loose as a notorious rake. He drank, gambled, and womanized, burning a reckless path through the 1930s. He pushed away friends and then bought them back with lavish gifts. He alienated publishers and producers, all the while promising that his next story was coming soon.
But it wasn’t. After 1934, Dashiell Hammett never wrote another novel.
The end of Hammett’s career remains a mystery. At times, he told colleagues that he’d only been interested in the money. But because he was rich, he felt no impulse to tell more stories. Other times, he confessed to developing “stage fright.” He’d start novels and abandon them. As a kind of penance, he spent years sitting at his typewriter, staring out the window and drinking himself into oblivion. Friends and family tried to help him quit boozing, but he kept them at a distance. The Pinkerton code held strong.
For Hammett, the Falcon became an albatross—the book against which all of his work was judged. He came to loathe the hard-boiled style he’d created, calling it “a menace.” Meanwhile, Sam Spade became the mold for new detectives— from Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer to Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch. Even later, such film and TV investigators as “Dirty” Harry Callahan and Jack Bauer drew from Hammett’s hero. The Maltese Falcon was made into a movie twice, and the 1941 version starring Humphrey Bogart became a film noir classic.
During the 1940s and 1950s, Hammett’s life took a turn for the pathetic. As an avowed communist and a member of the Civil Rights Congress (CRC)—an organization devoted to supporting civil liberties—Hammett was an easy target for Senator Joe McCarthy’s witch hunt. In 1951, Hammett served five months in prison for contempt of court during a case involving the CRC. Two years later, he was blacklisted for refusing to offer a full testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The trials wrecked his career. Hammett’s novels suddenly went out of print, libraries banned his books, and newspaper editorials viciously attacked his personal and political views. He hit rock bottom when the IRS slammed him with a $180,000 bill for unpaid taxes. Hammett never recovered, and he died a penniless recluse in 1961. After his death, the IRS auctioned the rights to all of his novels and short stories. The lone bidder was playwright Lillian Hellman, his longtime friend and lover, who secured the entire library for a paltry $5,000.
Today, The Maltese Falcon is recognized as the classic that set the bar for crime fiction. The board of the Modern Library voted it one of the Best 100 Novels of the 20th Century. No matter how tragic Hammett’s life became, he achieved his one desire—to turn detective stories into great literature.
Will the real Maltese Falcon please stand up?
The precious object was based on a real bejeweled statuette. In 1539, Charles I of Spain gave the island of Malta to the Brothers Hospitallers of St. John of God, a Catholic order that cared for the sick and poor. To pay tribute to King Charles, the Hospitallers sent him a gold statuette of a falcon encrusted with jewels. But pirates seized the ship carrying the bird to Spain, and the statue vanished for centuries. Then in 1911, the falcon was spotted in a Paris junk shop, painted over with black enamel. It quickly disappeared again, prompting a murderous game of international hide-and-seek. Today, its whereabout are still unknown.
As for the statue featured in The Maltese Falcon movie, that one's thoroughly accounted for. In 1994, a New York jeweler purchased it at aurtion for $400,000, making it -at the time- the most expensive movie prop ever sold.
The article above by Bill DeMain appeared in the Jan/Feb 2010 issue of mental_floss magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.
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