How interesting it would have been to have read The Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest as they were originally published, as serialized installments within the pages of Black Mask magazine. The idea of having to wait an entire month to find out the outcome of the latest cliffhanger sounds like a reader’s most exquisite form of torture. As it happens, I didn’t have to wait as I flew through these works in record time. My intention was to only read Falcon, but I enjoyed it so much that I decided to read another. Having now read two novels by both Hammett and Chandler, I can see why they will forever be considered the top authors of hard-boiled detective fiction. While researching some of Hammett’s background, I came across this interesting observation from James Ellroy:
Chandler wrote the kind of guy he wanted to be, Hammett wrote the kind of guy he was afraid he was.
I thought this quote was rather insightful, and so it will be the epicenter of my thoughts on both of these novels. While plot is important to any work of fiction, I found that it was the interactions between the characters that held my interest. The outcome of the story became secondary to my need to understand these two protagonists, Sam Spade and the unnamed Continental Op. Hammett seamlessly pulls you into a world where lies and deceit abound, nobody is trustworthy, and led by a protagonist who is the most untrustworthy of all.
Hammett’s writing technique for The Maltese Falcon moves seamlessly. Written in omnipresent third-person, we are devoid of delving into Sam Spade’s inner thoughts. Each sentence focuses on either on outside physical description or moving the action forward. Here is our first introduction to him:
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 make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by 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.
The Maltese Falcon moves as a piece of fiction composed in the style of Hemingway. Hammett strips down the novel to only description and dialogue. Every sentence works to move the story forward. At no point in the narrative do we actually enter a character’s conscious thought or see through their eyes. It is left to the reader to discern what is actual truth.
While this novel is quite complex when factoring in its various characters and their unseen connections and motives, the plot itself is rather simple. Detective Sam Spade is recruited by femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy to help her retrieve the infamous bird of the title, a work of art that once belonged to a Templar-esque order of former Crusaders and is now being hunted around the world by a rivalrous group of thieves. Three murders, including his partner, and a lot of trouble with the police later, Spade enters into his own standoff with the criminals over the elusive treasure. Hammett manages to make the characters memorable, taking it to the farthest border of camp possible (one of the bad guys is an overweight man named Gutman for crying out loud) without falling into the ridiculous. In addition to the eye candy villainess and overweight crime lord, we also have the prissy and quite incompetent Joel Cairo. Readers would do well to write down some information about each of these characters, as it proves almost impossible to keep up with all of the lies and backstabbings that occur. Spade’s interactions with them serve as the true driving force of this novel, with the detective proving to be the most duplicitous out of all of them.
The moral compass to be found in this story is Effie Perine, Spade’s secretary and the only decent character to be found within these pages. This conversation with Spade in the book’s final pages demonstrates the the hero we’ve been following is the most corrupt of all and is truly and permanently damned:
[Effie’s] voice was queer as the expression on her face. “You did that, Sam, to her?”
He nodded. “Your Sam’s a detective.” He looked sharply at her. He put his arm around her waist, his hand on her hip. “She did kill Miles, angel,” he said gently, “offhand, like that.” He snapped the fingers of his other hand.
She escaped from his arm as if it had hurt her. “Don’t, please, don’t touch me,” she said brokenly. “I know—I know you’re right. You’re right. But don’t touch me now—not now.”
Spade’s face became pale as his collar.
Although written first, Red Harvest marks my second foray into Hammett. Written in first-person this time, the author still creates a barrier between character and reader by making our hero unnamed, referred to only as the “Continental Op” and giving no backstory into his origins. The novel opens with our hero travelling to a town called Personville to meet with a client. Due to its high level of corruption among their most powerful, the town has earned the nickname “Poisonville.” Upon arriving, the Op discovers his client has been murdered. Everyone he encounters, whether businessmen, politicians, or even the police chief, is corrupt. Thus, the Op makes it his personal mission to “clean up” Poisonville once and for all.
As you can imagine from the book’s title, there are a lot of deaths. A lot. By the time it’s over, nearly two dozen characters are dead. The most compelling facet of his actions is that the Op never kills anyone directly; rather, he plays on their own insecurities and mistrust to turn these criminals against each other. The Op is quite the master strategist, a devil in disguise who keeps his methods a secret from his colleagues and superiors.
Years ago, while working in a video store, I watched a Western called High Plains Drifter. Clint Eastwood plays a man with no name and a questionable past hired to dispatch some outlaws that have taken over a town. It’s a plot that has been played in many Westerns, and it’s easy to see how Hammett’s storytelling in Red Harvest was influential to the development of these movies. The writing is certainly cinematic and once again focused on action and description only. Early in the novel, the Op describes an early morning scene as follows:
I noticed that two automatic pistols hung on nails over the top of the door through which I had come. They would be handy if any of the house’s occupants opened the door, found an enemy with a gun there, and were told to put up their hands.
The action happens at such a rapid-fire pace that it can be difficult keeping up with events. I found myself writing notes and having to go back and reread a section. I would, however, caution about taking my approach. The alliances shift at such a breakneck speed, that it’s better just to enjoy the ride as a really good piece of cinema.
As with the devil Sam Spade, we are left feeling uneasy as to how well we can trust the Op. During a part where he is accused of murder, I found myself questioning where he was actually guilty or not. The corruption that saturates Poisonville is so high that we see the Op having to become a bigger monster in order to stop the ones he has been dispatched to eliminate.
With so much deception in both of these novels, it begs the question of where can one find the morality? There is an interesting section smack in the middle of Falcon that almost seemed out of place to the rest of the flowing narrative. While sitting in his apartment, Spade tells Brigid a story about a former case he worked. Hired to find a missing man, Spade manages to track him down to discover he was alive and well. The man recounts to Spade an event that was a major turning point in his life, where he was walking down the street one day, and some building scaffolding missed him by mere inches. Faced with his own mortality, the man abandoned his life and started a new one, saying he felt like his life was out-of-sync and needed to put it right. Occupying only a couple of pages in the book, Spade’s story has no place with the narrative proper. I just wondered if maybe this case had a longstanding impact on Spade, perhaps Hammett himself. Perhaps satan wanted out of hell after all?
“But that’s the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”-The Maltese Falcon
Have you read any of these books? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.