Book Awards E-MAIL US



Five Characters in Search of a Bird
Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon

As a former investigator for the Pinkerton National Detective Service, Dashiell Hammett had a better preparation than most beginning writers who try their hand at detective fiction. He also had pretty good motivation: he suffered from tuberculosis, and he turned to writing to pay bills after he fell too ill to work.

As it happened, he chose a great moment to get into the business: he began writing for pulp detective magazines just as American detective fiction was emerging into its own distinct, hard-boiled genre. Hammett’s work helped establish its form and solidify its popularity.

From 1923 to 1934, he wrote five novels, two novellas and scores of short stories. And then, in the face of a tremendous bout of writer’s block, he simply stopped writing. Heavy drinking didn’t help, but even going sober in 1948 (after a near fatal collapse) didn’t make the words flow. In fact, while he suggested successful dramatic subjects for his longtime lover, Lillian Hellman, he died in 1961 without publishing another novel.

As brief as the run was, though, it produced a handful of classics, including The Thin Man (perhaps known today mostly through the successful film series that grew out of the novel) and one of the landmarks of hard-boiled detective fiction, The Maltese Falcon.

February 14 marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of The Maltese Falcon’s publication in book form. (It was originally serialized in Black Mask from September 1929 to January 1930.)


The novel—which takes place over five days in 1928—begins as a simple missing-person case that goes bad. A young woman named O’Shaughnessy arrives in Sam Spade’s office and engages him to find her sister, who has run off with a man named Thursby. Her goal, she says, is to retrieve her sister before her parents return from Europe.

Spade assigns his partner to follow Thursby, and later that night, he is awoken by a call: his partner has been shot and killed. That gets Spade interested enough to stumble onto the story of the black bird, and the book’s plot suddenly shifts from a straightforward whodunit to something far more interesting.

Sure, the novel offers a handful of murders to solve, but the real interest lies in the enigmatic title figure: what, precisely, is the Maltese Falcon, and who has it?

For all its stripped-down narrative speed, The Maltese Falcon isn’t for readers who like their questions answered upfront. Fifty-some pages fly by before the falcon gets a mention. At one hundred pages, we finally learn what the bird looks like: “‘It’s a black figure, as you know, smooth and shiny, of a bird, a hawk or falcon, about that high.’ She held her hands a foot apart.”

Another thirty pages pass before the bird’s value is spelled out, and more than half the novel is over before we get the particulars about the statuette’s historical backstory. Even then, it remains an intriguing enigma.


While the statuette’s exact nature is cloudy, Hammett’s appealingly eccentric characters and his distinctive writing voice aren’t. In fact, they offer the sort of foreground entertainment the book needs to stave off our impatience about the bird’s lingering just out of sight. Without them, we might notice Hammett’s teasing reticence with more irritation.

But who can get irritated with a novel that offers the likes of Joel Cairo (a Levantine dandy) and Casper Gutman (an outsized aesthete ruthlessly obsessed with the black bird)? Or Wilmer, the undersized hood who fumes impotently at Spade’s bullying? Their voices are unique and often hilarious, and readers familiar with John Huston’s film adaptation of The Maltese Falcon will find their roles so well cast that the book reads like a novelization written after the film was finished.

On the other hand, many first-time readers who love Huston’s film may find Hammett’s Sam Spade a bit surprising. He is tall, Hammett writes, and unlike the dark, slight Humphrey Bogart, Hammett’s Spade is thickly muscled, and “the sag of his big rounded shoulders…made his body like a bear’s. It was like a shaved bear’s: his chest was hairless. His skin was childishly soft and pink.”

Bear-like, perhaps—but he’s not exactly, cuddly. In fact, Hammett writes, his Spade “looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.”

The jump from a bear-like blond Satan to Bogart is the only significant change the director John Huston made in adapting the book to the big screen, though. The dialogue in Huston’s film is remarkably faithful to the novel, for example, and the film and the book work well together in a way that most fiction-into-film efforts don’t. Inevitably, one seems to dominate the other, to be so clearly the real story the artist set out to tell.

Possibly, the Huston and Hammett versions complement each other because they’re equally strong works of art: they’re not different enough to distinguish easily, and neither lacks anything obvious as a sign for the judges. In fact, the two works resonate so well together that it’s a little jarring to read Hammett’s enthusiastically extended color descriptions. Surely, veteran film viewers think, this is a book that could only present itself in the shadowy grays and deep black of film noir?


As a writer, Hammett doesn’t disappoint. He certainly chooses his words far more carefully and artfully than a fast-paced serial in a pulp magazine would require. Despite the book’s speed, Hammett offers little details that make the imagined space come alive: “A buff-curtained window, eight or ten inches open, let in from the court a current of air faintly scented with ammonia,” he writes, describing Spade’s office. “The ashes on the desk twitched and crawled in the current.”

And the ways in which Hammett presents his characters’ actions and reactions is gratifyingly complex. As the old rule of writing requires, he doesn’t simply tells us his characters’ thoughts but shows them – in sly ways. When O’Shaughnessy confesses that she had fabricated her sister’s story, for instance, Hammett writes of Spade that “The upper part of his face frowned. The lower part smiled.”

Ironically, my favorite passage in the novel doesn’t advance the plot or explain a character’s actions. It’s an extended anecdote that Spade tells O’Shaughnessy, and it reads a little like something Albert Camus would put into the mouth of one of his characters.

He’d been assigned to a missing persons case, Spade says, and when he found the man, his stated reason for disappearing was peculiar, to say the least. He’d left his family in reaction to a near brush with death: a beam had fallen from high up on a building under construction and hit the sidewalk beside him.

“‘He was scared stiff of course, he said, but he was more shocked than really frightened,’” Spade tells her. “‘He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.’”

The randomness of the accident suggests to the man, who had built his life obsessively around the notion that the world was orderly and stable, “that life was fundamentally none of these things.” And that “in sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step, and not into step, with life.”

The man subsequently leaves his wife and children and starts a new family in another city.

“‘I don’t think he even knew he had settled back naturally into the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma,’” Spade says. “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.’”

That the anecdote didn’t make it into Huston’s film is understandable. He made a lean, fast film, and the sudden shift in momentum would have seemed peculiar. Let’s just be satisfied that Hammett didn’t mind holding up his novel’s relentless momentum long enough to share such a beautifully told, subtly profound story.

—Review by Woody Arbunkle

Posted February 1, 2005





Graphic Design by D.A. Frostick 
Contents and Graphic Design Copyright 1999-2005
riverrun enterprises, inc.