04MAY2018 – Quote of the Day

Enter Joel Cairo, Hammett could draw a word picture.

 

The Maltese Falcon

by Dashiell Hammett

Chapter 4 – The Black Bird

Spade returned to his office at ten minutes past five that evening. Effie Perine was sitting at his desk reading Time. Spade sat on the desk and asked: “Anything stirring?”

“Not here. You look like you’d swallowed the canary.”

He grinned contentedly. “I think we’ve got a future. I always had an idea that if Miles would go off and die somewhere we’d stand a better chance of thriving. Will you take care of sending flowers for me?”

“I did.”

“You’re an invaluable angel. How’s your woman’s intuition today?”

“Why?”

“What do you think of Wonderly?”

“I’m for her,” the girl replied without hesitation.

“She’s got too many names,” Spade mused, “Wonderly, Leblanc, and she says the right one’s O’Shaughnessy.”

“I don’t care if she’s got all the names in the phone-book. That girl is all right, and you know it.”

“I wonder.” Spade blinked sleepily at Effie Perine. He chuckled. “Anyway she’s given up seven hundred smacks in two days, and that’s all right.”

Effie Perine sat up straight and said: “Sam, if that girl’s in trouble and you let her down, or take advantage of it to bleed her, I’ll never forgive you, never have any respect for you, as long as I live.”

Spade smiled unnaturally. Then he frowned. The frown was unnatural. He opened his mouth to speak, but the sound of someone’s entrance through the corridor-door stopped him.

Effie Perine rose and went into the outer office. Spade took off his hat and sat in his chair. The girl returned with an engraved card–Mr. Joel Cairo.

“This guy is queer,” she said.

“In with him, then, darling,” said Spade.

Mr. Joel Cairo was a small-boned dark man of medium height. His hair was black and smooth and very glossy. His features were Levantine. A square-cut ruby, its sides paralleled by four baguette diamonds, gleamed against the deep green of his cravat. His black coat, cut tight to narrow shoulders, flared a little over slightly plump hips. His trousers fitted his round legs more snugly than was the current fashion. The uppers of his patent-leather shoes were hidden by fawn spats. He held a black derby hat in a chamois-gloved hand and came towards Spade with short, mincing, bobbing steps. The fragrance of chypre came with him.

Spade inclined his head at his visitor and then at a chair, saying: “Sit down, Mr. Cairo.”

Cairo bowed elaborately over his hat, said, “I thank you,” in a high-pitched thin voice and sat down. He sat down primly, crossing his ankles, placing his hat on his knees, and began to draw off his yellow gloves.

Spade rocked back in his chair and asked: “Now what can I do for you, Mr. Cairo?” The amiable negligence of his tone, his motion in the chair, were precisely as they had been when he had addressed the same question to Brigid O’Shaughnessy on the previous day.

Cairo turned his hat over, dropping his gloves into it, and placed it bottom-up on the corner of the desk nearest him. Diamonds twinkled on the second and fourth fingers of his left hand, a ruby that matched the one in his tie even to the surrounding diamonds on the third finger of his right hand. His hands were soft and well cared for. Though they were not large their flaccid bluntness made them seem clumsy. He rubbed his palms together and said over the whispering sound they made: “May a stranger offer condolences for your partner’s unfortunate death?”

“Thanks.”

“May I ask, Mr. Spade, if there was, as the newspapers inferred, a certain–ah–relationship between that unfortunate happening and the death a little later of the man Thursby?”

Spade said nothing in a blank-faced definite way.

Cairo rose and bowed. “I beg your pardon.” He sat down and placed his hands side by side, palms down, on the corner of the desk. “More than idle curiosity made me ask that, Mr. Spade. I am trying to recover an–ah–ornament that has been–shall we say?–mislaid. I thought, and hoped, you could assist me.”

Spade nodded with eyebrows lifted to indicate attentiveness.

“The ornament is a statuette,” Cairo went on, selecting and mouthing his words carefully, “the black figure of a bird.”

Spade nodded again, with courteous interest.

“I am prepared to pay, on behalf of the figure’s rightful owner, the sum of five thousand dollars for its recovery.” Cairo raised one hand from the desk-corner and touched a spot in the air with the broad-nailed tip of an ugly forefinger. “I am prepared to promise that–what is the phrase?–no questions will be asked.” He put his hand on the desk again beside the other and smiled blandly over them at the private detective.

“Five thousand is a lot of money,” Spade commented, looking thoughtfully at Cairo. “It–”

Fingers drummed lightly on the door.

When Spade had called, “Come in,” the door opened far enough to admit Effie Perine’s head and shoulders. She had put on a small dark felt hat and a dark coat with a grey fur collar.

“Is there anything else?” she asked.

“No. Good night. Lock the door when you go, will you?”

Spade turned in his chair to face Cairo again, saying: “It’s an interesting figure.”

The sound of the corridor-door’s closing behind Effie Perine came to them.

Cairo smiled and took a short compact flat black pistol out of an inner pocket. “You will please,” he said, “clasp your hands together at the back of your neck.”

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.