Re: RARA-AVIS: Homosexuality in The Maltese Falcon

From: Brian Thornton (
Date: 05 Oct 2004

To tell the truth, I always considered Joel Cairo to be Hammett's sly dig at another "fussy little European man of slicked-back hair, impeccable grooming and round, pudgy physique": Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot. Did that occur to anyone else?

See you all at Bouchercon!

Brian Thornton

----- Original Message ----- From: "Marc Seals" <> To: <> Sent: Monday, October 04, 2004 1:49 PM Subject: Re: RARA-AVIS: Homosexuality in The Maltese Falcon

> A few thoughts on the subject, mostly from an article that I wrote a few
years ago on constructions of masculine identity in early Hammett novels:
> Hammett's clearest depiction of the presumably homosexual male in The
Maltese Falcon is that of Joel Cairo. Cairo first appears in Sam Spade's office, heralded by his engraved calling card. Effie Perrine, Sam's secretary, simply says, "This guy is queer." Although the Oxford English Dictionary dates the use of the word "queer" to denote homosexuality to 1932, when W. H. Auden described "an underground cottage frequented by the queer," it seems a bit hard to believe that Hammett's use here is mere coincidence. Through this type of stereotype, Hammett may be playing to his mainstream readers' homophobia, reassuring them that it is appropriate to ridicule and even despise such distortions of "normal" masculinity. Regardless of his purpose, Hammett's description of Cairo seems to be almost a parody of the physical markers that make up the cultural stereotypes of the thirties toward homosexuality: "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 toward Spade with short, mincing, bobbing steps. The fragrance of chypre came with him." Cairo is a parody of effeminate masculinity. He speaks in a "high-pitched thin voice." Just in case the reader has any doubt, Brigid O'Shaughnessy explicitly refers to a boy that Cairo "had" in Constantinople. Though enraged by the accusation, Cairo does not deny it; he retorts: "The one you couldn't make?" They proceed to slap each other, and Spade stops the fight by choking Cairo. Hammett clearly contrasts the two men. While Cairo seems more inclined to catfights, Spade fights in a "manly" manner.
> Wilmer Cook is, at the very least, a male of ambiguous sexuality. Wilmer
is described as a gunsel, a term that now denotes a "cheap thief or criminal," but originally was a slang term used by hoboes and prisoners to refer to young, inexperienced-and probably homosexual-boys (who were often kept by an older man). Wilmer is described as small, even undersized, with
"very fair skin." Hammett clearly implies that it is possible, if not likely, that Wilmer is homosexual. Wilmer is rarely called by his name by anyone but Gutman; he is usually just referred to as "the boy." He tries hard to be tough, but the only time that he is not put in his place (as a
"boy") by Spade is when Spade has been drugged first. Wilmer carries two large pistols, as if he is trying to assert his masculinity, but this effort is in vain; when he draws the weapons, Spade has little difficulty taking them from him in what seems a symbolic castration. After being set up as the
"fall guy" for the murders, Wilmer tries to rebuff the sympathetic caresses of Joel Cairo, but Cairo's affection hints at the possibility of a previous relationship. Wilmer is impotent in his efforts to be a "man." He has the final word, however, when he escapes Gutman's plan to turn him over to the police and soon after shoots and kills Gutman, perhaps claiming manhood as his birthright from his symbolic father figure.
> If Wilmer is homosexual, then Gutman is perhaps thrust into the role of
the aforementioned older man who "keeps" the gunsel. Thus, it could be argued that the whole gang might be homosexual.
> ~Marc

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