Yes, I'm mostly with Nathan on this one, though I think you might have started your course with a selection from Sherlock Holmes. It's hard to establish firsts in any art, but Spade is still one of the least sentimental characters in detective fiction. It is somewhat ironic that this self-serving, nasty piece of work has been so romanticized by fans and immitators. Spade certainly had no trouble attracting women even in the book.
He's screwing Archer's wife when the novel opens, neither of whom he appears to care for but if he doesn't solve Archer's murder it will be bad for the business they operated together, and upon which Spade still depends for his livlihood, his survival. That's the ONLY reason he investigates. What's bad for business is bad for Spade, is his "code". He's not motivated by romantic stories of Knights and missing works of art, "the stuff dreams are made of."
The cops are depicted as unrealiably corrupt and sentimental. So much for the justice system. The only person he appears to trust and treat hospitably is the one woman with whom he maintains a straightforward business relationship, his secretary. Near the end of the novel Spade provides a Letterman-like list for why he will turn in Brigid O'Shaughnessey, the woman he clearly loves, for Archer's murder. Essentially they are an indictment against acting on romantic emotions.
I don't know whether Hammett thought this good or bad but it was certainly a major part of the zeit geist of the time, when faith in government (justice) or church (love) could very likely have put you in a cold, flooded, vermin-ridden trench somewhere in Europe surrounded by a bunch of dead friends. Since the war people had invested their hopes largely in the stock market. With the crash looming it was, as Nathan says, a time not unlike our own recent history when government was still largely regarded by definition as less capable than the self-regulating market.
Though coldly analytical, and in a nation of shopkeepers, Holmes had attachments to notions of justice, country and empire. If he were truly hardboiled, that old sentimentalist Watson could never have lived with him. Mike Hammer was hardboiled but positively romantic when it came to affairs of the hand gun and big-breasted babes. His sentimental code was primarily about justice served. For Spade it was just business. He's more akin to Richard Stark's Parker than the private detectives who preceded or followed.
My deflated 2 cents worth,
----- Original Message -----
From: Nathan Cain
Sent: Wednesday, January 28, 2009 12:59 PM
Subject: Re: RARA-AVIS: Hammett: How he made it new?
I think Sam Spade pretty much perfectly embodies all the traits of a
hard boiled character (he's tough, sometimes cruel and indifferent,
but he still has a "code" if you will) and Hammett's style epitomizes
the blunt, colloquial hard boiled prose style. Hammett wasn't the
first, but he was the best. The Maltese Falcon is also, let's say,
less pulpy than his Continental Op work. You can see the seams in Red
Harvest and The Dain Curse, but they are less evident in Falcon, even
though it started out life as a serial. It's a fully realized, mature
That's my two cents, anyway. I'm sure someone will say it better soon.
If you haven't read it already, let me reccomend Leonard Cassuto's
Hard Boiled Sentimentality as a scholarly work about crime fiction you
might want to read, or introduce into class. His section on The Falcon
is very good, and quite relevant because he analyzes the story in
light of Hammett's business background and the Great Depression. The
book came out right before the 1929 stock market crash, and Cassuto
makes the argument that Hammett was wary of the boom that came before
the fall and his book full of characters obsessed with imaginary
wealth reflects that skepticism. Given our current economic outlook, I
would find that particular theory irresistable if I were trying to
make The Maltese Falcon come alive for a group of students.
On Wed, Jan 28, 2009 at 8:43 AM, Seth Harwood <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
> Gentle Rara-Avians,
> Please indulge a question that might be less obvious to many than it
> may seem to you. I'm teaching a Detective Fiction class right now in
> San Francisco and we've started with The Maltese Falcon. I know this
> is the book to start with, but I'm curious what you all have to say on
> why? A question I'm posing here is: What did Hammett bring to the fold
> that was new and started things fresh for our genre?
> We've read "The Simple Art of Murder" and Hillerman's intro to the
> Best American Mystery Stories of the Century, as well as a number of
> other things I've been able to find and I'm definitely coming up with
> some answers. BUT I keep thinking that it'd be interesting to see what
> you have to say about this.
> Please have at it.
> Seth Harwood
> author of the JACK WAKES UP
> Coming May 5, 2009 from Three Rivers Press
> Join the nation at sethharwood.com, become a Palms Daddy/Momma!
> [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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