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On The Trail Of The Falcon

Chris Dickerson
Ernest Hemingway once said something to the effect that all modern American literature dates from a single book by Mark Twain, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and there’s a lot of merit to that argument: the naturalistic dialogue, the wit, the social observation, the “common man” hero, the hero’s journey, were all combined elements that were new then (at least in American storytelling), and have become standard since.

Hemingway himself had little in common with Twain as a writer, mainly because Papa displayed about as much of a sense of humor as is involved in watching paint dry. He couldn’t tell a joke in print if you held one of his own guns on him. Chekov he got; Twain, he didn’t have a clue.

The modern American writer who got both Twain and Hemingway, slapped their styles together, and in the process carved out his own, was Samuel Dashiell Hammett, and the book he did it in most effectively was “The Maltese Falcon” in 1929.

Mistake me not: I’m not suggesting Hammett copied Hemingway (Hammett was developing his writing in the pulps while Hemingway was a struggling journalist in Paris), and of course Hammett read Twain, but they wrote nothing alike. There’s nothing whimsical in Hammett, no attempts at winking social satire. Hammett’s humor is subtle, bone dry, ironic – even in “The Thin Man.”

Joel Cairo whining in the Hotel Belvedere lobby to Sam Spade, “You always have a very smooth explanation for everything,” and Spade replying, “What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?” is one of the funniest one-two punches in American fiction.

“The Maltese Falcon” does exactly what “Huck Finn” does: It sets our hero on an adventurous journey (which turns out to be one of self-discovery), throws a crazy-quilt of eccentric and dangerous characters in his path, and in the end he overcomes adversity and winds up back where he began, a better person, sadder but wiser, for the perils he faced (it’s no accident that the book, unlike the film, opens and closes with Spade and Effie in the detective’s office; that’s synergy, closure, the structure of classical tragedy; Hammett knew his stuff ).

Huck went down the Mississippi on a raft alongside a run-away slave called Jim; Spade in San Francisco rafts through a boiling current of lies and murder in a run-away mystery alongside a treacherous beauty called Brigid.

And by the end of the book, Spade discovers a level of honor and integrity he didn’t know he had, because, “When a man’s partner is killed, you’re supposed to do something about it.” That’s quite a character arc from the same guy who’s sleeping with his partner’s wife at the start of the story (not much honor and integrity in that).

Of course Brigid accuses him of inventing a reason to send her over – she doesn’t understand Spade’s suddenly-discovered code of honor any more than he, in the moment, understands it himself.

For me personally, reading “The Maltese Falcon” was also a journey of discovery, exactly 40 years ago. I was just a kid then.

I came to the book by way of Humphrey Bogart. OK, by way of writer Joe Hyams. OK, by way of writer Ron Goulart. Sort of by way of writer Maxwell Grant, kinda by way of Lamont Cranston, The Shadow… OK, this is getting more confusing than the trail of the Falcon’s various owners, so I’ll try to clear it up, if only because it gives an indication of how ripples of influence spread across our lives, like a stone dropped in a pond, so maybe it’s relevant to more people than just me.

I happened to catch “Casablanca” one Sunday afternoon on television in 1965.

This may sound strange to the generation who can’t conceive of a world before VCRs, let alone DVDs, or even cable slash satellite TV, but this is the way we had to do things back in the Dark Ages. One did not go out and rent a movie, watching it whenever you please.  You had to wait. You consulted the TV Guide to see what was on – you WAITED for something to be shown on television, or, if you lived in a big enough city or near a progressive college campus, for a musty art house to show a film which, until then, only existed as still photos in some movie book (and there weren’t many such books around in 1965, unlike today).

I saw “Casablanca.” I knew nothing about it in 1965. I was a kid. I had no idea it was the classic it is. The word “classic” was not in my kid-vocabulary. I only vaguely knew who Humphrey Bogart was. The “Bogie Cult” had barely begun.

At the fade out of “Casablanca,” as Bogie and Claude Raines strolled off in the fog, all I knew was that Humphrey Bogart was the greatest actor, the coolest character, I’d ever seen in my limited life. Like, WOW!

I then-and-there became a rock-solid Bogart fan.

Journalist Joe Hyams, also in ‘65, published a biography of Bogie, which I promptly bought. It was there that I first read about some movie that made Bogie a star, before “Casablanca” – “The Maltese Falcon.”

So I had to see it.

I waited. Checked the TV Guide weekly like a detective sifting clues, pouring over every page and broadcast movie listing (there were dozens of the damn things).

No Falcon, no Falcon, no Falcon.

I waited, and while I waited, I came across a paperback anthology of the detective pulp magazines by writer Ron Goulart. I knew of the pulps because I’d read the paperback reprints of Maxwell Grant’s adventures of The Shadow.

In Goulart’s intro he talked at length about Hammett, of course, and in the intro to a story about a private eye named Max Latin, Goulart said that Latin, with his ironic humor and edge-of-the-law ways, was reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart (Max Latin sure was).

If you’re still with me, you might be thinking, “Why didn’t this kid just read Hammett’s book, the little dunce?”

Because I believed then, and still do, that if you see the movie first and then read the book, it’s a better experience all around. That’s held true for me for decades.

I still regret reading “Presumed Innocent” and “Silence Of The Lambs” before I saw the films. Like John Huston’s version of the “Falcon,” both those films stuck to the books, and it hampered my enjoyment of the movie. I already knew what was going to happen, and the pictures in my imagination were far more powerful than anything on the screen, as good as the movies of “Presumed Innocent” and “Silence Of The Lambs” may be.

But back in ’65, after what seemed like months of waiting for “The Falcon” to be shown on TV, I could wait no longer. I went to the library and checked out the book.

From the opening paragraph, I was hooked:

“Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to another, smaller v. His yellow-gray eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by the thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down – from high flat temples – in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.”

I saw Bogart in those lines. Heard his voice in every exchange of dialogue. I read the thing straight through, faking an illness to stay home from school, so I could sit in bed and read.

By the time I closed the book, hours later, with Effie disengaging Spade’s arm from around her waist, repulsed by the fact that he’s sent Brigid to the slammer for Miles’ murder, and Spade morosely facing a possible future with Iva Archer (be careful what you wish for, you might just get it), I thought “The Maltese Falcon” was the greatest private eye novel ever written.

Seven days later – count ‘em, seven – “The Maltese Falcon” was shown on our local TV station’s afternoon movie.

I cut school to watch it (hey, you can go to school any day; hell, I might be 40 before they showed it on TV again – you think like that when you’re a kid).

Now here’s the funny part: I did NOT like it. Not then.

Bogie, oh, Bogie was great. He was to me Sam Spade personified. Peter Lorre, too, yeah, that was pretty much Joel Cairo as I envisioned him from the book.

But not Mary Astor (too old, I thought) nor Sydney Greenstreet (not fat enough) nor Elisha Cook Jr. (too old, too weasly, too, not murderous enough – I dunno, just not right), nor Jerome Cowan (read what Miles Archer is supposed to look like in the book) nor Lee Patrick as Effie (nowhere near sexy enough, she reminded me of my mother).

This, I had the kid-thought, is what happens when you read the book first. Never again.

Over the decades, I have of course come to my senses. Astor, Greenstreet and Cook are superb, as are the cops played by Barton MacLaine and Ward Bond (OK, I still have a problem with Lee Patrick as Effie, but only because Hammett gave the distinct impression that Spade was nailing Iva Archer and his secretary, and there’s none of that sexual tension between Bogie and Ms. Patrick; that could be Huston’s direction, not Lee’s fault at all).

Here’s the other funny part: Read that description of Spade again, and the fact is, he really looks nothing like Bogart. A hooked nose? Hardly. Blond? Not even in glorious glossy black’n’white. Satanic? Uh, I don’t think so. Spade’s also supposed to be stoop-shouldered and six foot tall. Bogie’s nowhere near either.

It doesn’t matter. Bogart, Astor, Greenstreet, Lorre, Cowan and Cook embody the characters Hammett put on paper (OK, OK, so does Lee Patrick, if you forget the sexy minx Effie is in the book).

The cast beautifully does what actors – great actors - are supposed to do. They take characters off the page and bring them to life in another dimension.

John Huston once said that the reason the two film versions of “The Falcon” before his flopped were because, “They were made by idiots. They had no idea of what Hammett accomplished.”

Huston, too, knew his stuff.

Is “The Maltese Falcon” the greatest private eye novel ever written? Frankly, I still think so. James M. Cain is leaner and meaner (though he didn’t write about private eyes, let’s not quibble over such stuff), Jim Thompson is darker (I said, let’s not quibble), Raymond Chandler’s plots are deeper, his writing more lyrical (that’s sometimes one of the problems with it), his humor more supple. Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer novels are, to me, one long Chandleresque snooze. Mickey Spillane is – oh, let’s not talk about Spillane, let’s stay civilized.

Hammett certainly influenced generations of crime writers, from Horace McCoy, James M. Cain, Jim Thompson and David Goodis to John D. MacDonald, Elmore Leonard and Robert B. Parker (Parker claims that Chandler was his primary influence – sorry, I don’t see it).

Did they copy Hammett? No, no more than Hammett copied Twain or Hemingway. Bad writers mimic. Good writers find their own voice, while being aware of what came before. 

And while I’m out on this limb as to whether “The Falcon” is the greatest private eye novel – go ahead, name a better one, I’ll wait - I’ll crawl out a little further and state that, I think, “The Maltese Falcon” has had a greater impact on American literature than much of Hemingway or Fitzgerald’s work, of Hammett’s contemporaries. Listen close, you’ll hear echoes of Hammett’s lean, laconic prose in everything from “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” to “Catcher In The Rye” to the works of John Fante, Charles Bukowski and Richard Price (and my humble self).

Hammett had a dark vision of human nature: Greed is all and the end justifies the means, unless one can find something bigger than one’s self to believe in (as, perhaps, Hammett believed in some form of socialism).

In his best work, such as “The Glass Key” and certainly “The Maltese Falcon,” loyalty becomes more important than money, than lust, than love – whatever that is in Hammett’s world - than anything.

Sam Spade does the right thing in the end, no matter if Effie, and especially Brigid, don’t understand it.

Hammett may have had a cynical streak where American values are concerned, but he also believed Americans were ultimately redeemable, just as Spade is, even if it means sending a woman he loves to the gallows.

That conviction helps make “The Maltese Falcon” one of the great American novels.

Chris Dickerson is a playwright and screenwriter and former journalist living in Los Angeles. His recently completed novel, “I Only Wanna Be With You,” a hard-boiled look at contemporary love and relationships in L.A., is headed for a publisher. Chris Dickerson can be reached through e-mail at

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