Sunday, March 15, 2009
80 years ago Dashiel Hammett created one of literaries most famoues P.I's Sam Spade.
"......Don't be sure sure I'm as crooked as I'm suppose to be. That kind of reputation might be good business--bringing in high-priced jobs and making it easier to deal with the enemy"
Sam Spade- The Maltese Falcon
In the early days of the pulps magazines private investigators were written to be honest and believe in justice, They would search for the villains and in many case would the search would end with a shoot out with the villain paying the ultimate price for their nefarious deeds. In a way they were written to be the modern cowboy. You know wear a white hat(if not literary), fight for those who couldn't and justice.
But in September 1929 pulp magazine, The Black Mask would publish former Pinkerton Detective, Dashiell Hammett' first installment(there was a total of five installments concluding in January of 1930 and then in later in 1930 would be published as a novel) of the Maltese Falcon introducing Private Detective Sam Spade. Forever changing the way we look at detective fiction and in particular how we look at private detectives in fiction.
I'm sure most people know the story of Sam and the Maltese Falcon from the 1941 movie starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet(there were two previous adaptations, the first in 1931 which was in some ways not as close to the book as the 41 version was and in 1936 which was called Satan Met a Lady which was comedy and not even close to the book).
Brigid O'Shaughnessy come to Spade and Archer(Mile's is Sam's partner,also Sam is seeing his wife on the side) Detective agency trying to scare away her partner Floyd Thursby in the theft of a black statuette of a falcon claiming that her sister ran away from home with him. When Thursby couldn't be scared away she stole one of his guns and killed Archer in hoping either Sam would take care of him or the police.
Later Thursby was shot in the back 4 times at his hotel by a man working for a Kasper Gutman who has been searching for the statuette for almost 2o years. But the police think Sam killed him for killing his partner.
Also looking for the falcon is a Joel Cairo who later will team up with Gutman.
We find that the black statuette is in reality a black painted jewel encrusted bird made of solid gold. The golden falcon was to be given to the King of Spain as a tribute for him giving the Knights of Rhodes(Crusaders) Malto, Gozo and Tripoli. In delivering the falcon pirates captured the ship and all the treasure on board. The much later was painted black to disguise it and passed around from private owner to private owner for years.
It is this bird that O'Shaugnessy and Thursby stole from it current owner.
Sam must sift through the lies, double crosses and murder to find who killed his partner and Thursby while falling in love with Miss O'Shaughnessy.
This may sound like an typical detective story but with Sam Spade Hammett changed the rules of how we perceive private detectives in fiction.
Spade didn't use guns or his fists(well not much anyway) to get to the truth as most P.I's did in fiction. Hell he doesn't even carry a gun telling to police detectives that he doesn't like them. No Sam using his best weapon his brain.
While Sam doesn't use the usual method to get to the truth he also is not in the typical detective. With Sam your never quite sure if he is on the up and up or just as crooked as the others. With past fictional detective you knew they were the good guy. They fought for the truth and didn't lie to get answers. The played by rules so to speak and stayed in the boundaries of the law. Also they worked hand in hand with the police.
But with Sam Spade, Hammett has written the quintessential outsider. Sam plays by the rules alright but on his terms and in his own way. Spade has his own sense of justice and how it applied to the world around him He just as soon to tell the police to go to hell and then later just as easy bring in the culprit. Like he does tells the District Attorney:
".......Then again you and the police have both accused me of being mixed up in the other night's murders. I've had trouble with both of you before. As far as I can see, my best chance of clearing myself of the trouble you're trying to make for me is by bringing in the murderers--all tied up.And my only chance of ever catching them and tying them up and bringing them in is by keeping away from you and the police, because neither of you show any signs of knowing what in the hell it's all about."
And as he told O'Shaughnessy why he was going to turn her in for Archer's murder no matter how much he loved her:
".......When a man's partner is killed he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought about him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it's bad business to let the killer get away with it. It's bad all around--bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere. Third, I'm a detective and expecting me to run criminals down and letting them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go. It can be done, all right and sometimes it is done, but it's not the natural thing......"
Everything was done on his terms or not at all.
Which brings up another point. In most detective fiction up to that point a female client was innocent of wrong doings. The detective was her "knight in shining armour" so to speak. If the a female character was the murderer more and likely she wasn't the client. And at the end of the story the guy would get the girl not send her to prison.
Hammett was in an unique position in writing about detectives having been a Pinkerton Detective before illness kept him from continuing. But even has he knew how a detective worked, Spade wasn't written as a typical detective that Hammett and other he worked with were.
Hammett wrote Spade the way he and other detectives wished to be. Bold, blusterous, fast talking and quick witted. And of course never needing to use a gun.
He also set the stage for a new kind of detective. Following in Sam Spade foot steps would be Archie Goodwin (though Archie was more a ladies man than Spade)by Rex Stout who created Archie's boss Nero Wolfe, Raymond Chandler's, Philip Marlow and Mickey Spillane's, Mike Hammer(though Mike was more likely to shoot it out). Though I would say the P.I. the most like Spade was television's Jim Rockford from the Rockford Files. A former con Rockford hated guns(he kept his is the container holding flour) and was more likely to talk his way out of a fight. Though Spade could use his fists Jim more and likely get the crap beaten out of him.
The Maltese Falcon became and instant hit with the readers. When the five installments were collected into novel form it became a instant bestseller. It would be one of the two character that Hammett would be best know for, The other was of course Nick and Nora Charlies, husband and wife sleuth from Hammett's novel The Thin Man.(though they only appeared in one novel there would be six movies starting 1934).
As for Sam Spade, well Hammett would only write him in 3 lesser known short stories, A Man Called Spade" (1932, The American Magazine), "Too Many Have Lived" (1932, The American Magazine) and "They Can Only Hang You Once" (1932, The American Magazine).
But since his introduction in 1929(many will state the anniversary of his introduction as 1930, the year the novel came out but I'm a purist and will say it's is in September of 29 with the Black Mask publishing the first installment that is the real anniversary) Sam Spade has been copied, imitated, satirized and written about to this day.
Between the first and last page Hammett not only crafted a well plotted story of the quest for riches but create the most remembered characters that even 80 years later still enthrall reader(or viewers) today. The Maltese Falcon is still one the best selling detective novels that draws in countless new fans of not only for Sam Spade but of his creator Dashiell Hammett.