Read in Picador edition as part of “The Four Great Novels”

Dashiel Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” (1929) is a devastating critique of the American Dream. Often seen as a straightforward detective novel, a closer contextual reading reveals a damning indictment of American capitalism and society.

At the heart of the novel is the quest for the Maltese Falcon, an elusive golden statute encrusted with highly precious stones. The falcon is never seen, never found, always slipping through the hands of the pursuers and melting away, like the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. There is little evidence it actually exists, but the treasure hunters seek it obsessively, and great financial and physical cost to themselves. What is this if not the perfect metaphor for the American Dream, the promise of wealth and happiness that so many Americans pursed (and pursue) but can never quite attain? When the gang think they have at one point found the statue, it turns out to be a fake, lead instead of gold. Hammett is surely saying that the American Dream, like the falcon, is a myth and a fake.

The falcon is also the loot of imperialism, made from gems and gold stolen by the Crusaders: “For years they had preyed on the Saracens, had taken nobody knows what spoils of gems, precious metals silks, ivories – the cream of the cream of the East. Hammett identifies the Crusades as not a matter of religion, but plunder: “We all know that the Holy Wars to them, as to the Templars, were largely a matter of loot”. (483)

In Hammett’s prohibition-era America, society is unjust and intolerant. The police in Hammett’s novel are incompetent and corrupt, agents of a corrupt and unjust society. At one point Spade tells Iva, Archer’s widow, in relation to talking to the police “Maybe it’d be best to say “no” right across the board”. This was Hammett’s response (in effect) when question by the McCarthy investigation into communism in the arts in America in the 1950’s (to be precise, he pleaded his 5th Amendment rights to all questions”) a stance which eventually landed him in jail. The novel ends with Spade turning his lover into the police, and turning his back on love, another rejection of the romantic illusion of middle class life.

Or is this all nonsense? Does knowing that Hammett was a communist, was black-listed, and jailed for his politics make such a reading of “The Maltese Falcon” sustainable? I have to admit I had never thought of it as a critique of the American Dream until I read a short biography of him. Until then I thought of it as a straightforward albeit genre-defining detective novel. Is contextual analysis, in which the author’s life is mined for lenses through which the novel can be read, a sensible approach to reading? I confess until now, I thought not, but the idea that the falcon is a metaphor for the American Dream is a pretty powerful one.