In this alternative review of TMF I wanted to consider some parts of the text in more detail, rather than the broad sweep of the admittedly complex story line.
Sam Spade, the central character and archetype of the hard-boiled American detective, is emotionally stunted. He shows no grief whatsoever at the death of his partner, Miles Archer, and avoids telling Archer’s wife, who he has been having an affair with, about his murder. Hammett shows this in the constant references to Spade’s lack of reaction and his woodenness. His only reaction is to tell his secretary to “Have the Spade & Archer taken off the door, and Samuel Spade put on” (398)
Hammett is really good at noticing the small, subtle movements we all make which convey emotion or intention but which are easily missed. Here for example Spade’s client, Brigid Shaugnessey, picks up his hat:
“She came back and stood in front of him holding the hat, not offering it to him, but holding it for him to take if he wished”. (My emphasis)
The difference in the two ways of holding a hat here is slight, but in a novel where every word counts Hammett conveys a lot about Brigid and her relationship to Spade – she is a consummate performer, and knows offering him the hat would convey “let’s go”, whereas “holding it for him to take if he wished” is a more passive gesture, conveying “let’s go?”, giving him control of the situation. Later, in the eponymous chapter, Brigid is described while Spade rolls yet another cigarette:
“She put a finger-tip to her mouth, staring across the room at nothing with widened eyes, and then, with narrower eyes, glanced quickly at Spade. He was engrossed in the making of his cigarette. ”Oh yes”, she began, “of course –“ She took the finger away from her mouth and smoothed her blue dress over her knees. She frowned at her knees.”
This is extraordinary writing. Hammett uses these small movements, even down to the width of her pupils, to tell us so much about what is going on. Brigid has widened her eyes as part of her seduction technique. She narrows them to glance at Spade, who is studiously ignoring her performance. The fingertip to the mouth is a classic sexual invitation, mimicking fellatio. When this doesn’t work she moves to smoothing her dress, drawing her attention down to her legs and groin. She is an expert temptress, using her sexuality to get what she wants. Later, after they share a supper of sausage, (little subtlety there!), “Spade’s arms went around her, holding her to him, muscles bulging his blue sleeve, a hand cradling her head, its fingers half lost among red hair, a hand moving groping fingers over her slim back. His eyes burned yellowy” (453). She has won – or has she? (Incidentally, I am not sure about the word “yellowy”).
There is a fascinating snippet of dialogue between Spade and Brigid immediately after this scene, the morning after they sleep together. He has crept out to search her apartment, demonstrating that although she may have seduced him, he is still in control. When he comes back to his apartment she is alarmed, or claims to be, and has “her right hand out of sight under a pillow”. (454). “I’m sorry angel, I thought you’d sleep through it. Did you have that gun under your pillow all night?
“No, you know I didn’t” (455)
He knows she didn’t have the gun under her pillow, because her pillow didn’t stay in place all night, suggesting that their sex was reasonably active. Pretty racy stuff for 1920’s American literature?
I’m going to write separately about the parallels between The Maltese Falcon and the writing of Raymond Chandler, but for now, while Hammett can’t hold a candle to Chandler when it comes to crafting a phrase, few can, I should acknowledge that there are still some treasures here. For example he describes Brigid’s eyes as “cobalt-blue prayers”, which I thought was extraordinary. There is also the description of the Fat Man, which was one of the best descriptions of obesity I can remember reading:
“The fat man was flabbily fat with bulbous pink cheeks and lips and chins and neck, with a great soft egg of a belly that was all his torso, and pendant cones for arms and legs. As he advanced to meet Spade, all his bulbs rose and shook and fell separately with each step, in the manner of clustered soap bubbles not yet released from the pipe through which they had been blown. ” Clustered soap bubbles – isn’t that fantastic?