The Black Bird

Dashiell Hammett was not a science fiction author. What he was, was a card-carrying communist, an alcoholic, a philanderer who deserted his wife and children and by all accounts a jerk. He squandered his money and his writing talent and by the measure of lifetime total output left a very sparse legacy as a writer.

So why am I writing about him? Because he was one of the greatest 20th century American genre writers. And by extension I’d say he was one of the greatest 20th century story tellers. And finally, because he wrote the Maltese Falcon, which is the archetype for the hard-boiled detective story and by extension for most of American genre fiction and film story lines for the 1930s and 1940s. In fact I would say that the film Blade Runner is without a doubt the legitimate grand-child of the Maltese Falcon. So therefore it’s related to science fiction. Thus I can semi-legitimately categorize this under sf&f.

I’ve never been a detective story addict. When I was young I read the Holmes stories and I have from time to time read some crime fiction. But sf&f were more my central interest. I came to the Maltese Falcon late in life. I can’t remember if I ever saw the John Huston film in its entirety in my younger years although I am sure I saw bits of it through discussions of classic Hollywood films of the ‘30s and ‘40s. It was actually a very offhand chance that brought me to it. I was at a book store (Barnes and Noble’s or Borders?) back in the mid 1990s. They had some books for sale as remainders and a faux leather bound book caught my eye. It had the image of a black bird set off by silver highlights. It was an edition of the Maltese Falcon at a very reasonable price. How could a bibliophile resist? So I bought it and stuck it on a shelf for a year or two. One night I was tired and bored and there was nothing to watch on tv and nothing new to read. I looked around my old books and thought about rereading something I liked. I considered rereading Zorba the Greek for the hundredth time or some old short stories I like. The black book caught my eye. I hesitated. Why should I start that? It’s too long to fill an hour or two. I’d probably hate it. Eh, I’ll read it.

So I read it. I liked it. I recognized it. It was the written image of the American century. Here were the brash, mercurial, inhabitants of the early 20th century scurrying around their frenetic chaotic lives. This was a new world to them. The older world of family and community had dissolved into the urban machine. All certainty of earth and heaven had been removed. Their mission was to shove themselves through the crowded streets of the industrial age fast enough to collect some memories before the curtain came down on their short lives. All that was sure was death and taxes. You held onto a job to be able to pay the landlady and the butcher. The memory of the earlier world still existed in some of the older habits. Even the psychopath might still tip his hat to a lady or offer his enemy a cigar and a scotch. But the modern accelerators are already on the scene. You had mass communication in the form of the telephone, radio, phonograph and the big city newspapers. Transportation existed as the streetcar and the taxi. Automatic weapons, both pistols and machine guns had come on the scene. And most important was the new hero or rather the anti-hero. Sam Spade. He didn’t protect the weak and innocent. He was muscle and brain for hire to the highest bidder. If he caught a killer it might be just as much to give the police someone beside himself to arrest as it was to see justice done. His scruples wouldn’t prevent him from bedding the wife of his business partner. A the same time, it would compel him to avenge his partner’s murder. He was a professional and knew all the tricks and skills of his trade. But he was a violent man with a very dangerous temper.

So it’s a book of murder and cops and crime and crooks and femme fatales. There are twists and turns and ancient treasure and double and triple crosses. But surprisingly there are some small touches that stay with you just as much as the big scenes. There is a scene in the crowded dining area of his cramped apartment where he puts out food and drink in a way that makes you wish you were there. It’s a book with many things going for it. Some of the stylization seems unfamiliar and the violence less shocking than the latest slasher book. But you can detect the dna that underlies so much of modern genre storytelling.

I’ve since read the rest of Hammett’s works. That includes a few novels including the Thin Man book which also became a famous movie and a fair number of shorter stories. He has a number of good characters and some interesting plots. But in my mind the Maltese Falcon is the masterpiece and his claim to fame. I’d say it should be required reading for anyone who wants to write genre fiction. Not because you’ll learn how to write. And not to see where all the conventions came from. But just to show that good writing involves capturing the essence of a time or a place. It’s like a snapshot of the spirit. It tells the truth and that resonates. And that makes it last. You see there’s one other fact about Hammett that explains his success. He had worked as a detective. He actually knew what he was talking about. He probably never had to deal with people looking for a jewel encrusted golden bird but he certainly dealt with cops and crooks and desperate men of many types. He wrote what he knew.

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