"What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?"
February 14, 2005 9:48 AM   Subscribe

For lovers of the hard-boiled crime story, life began with the black bird. It's a tale of greed and a wisecracking gumshoe. The femme fatale is a liar. The object of the hero's search is a statuette of a falcon. Published exactly 75 years ago on Valentine's Day, Dashiell Hammett's private-eye novel "The Maltese Falcon"' immediately won critical acclaim. And when it was made into a 1941 movie starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre (and directed by a rookie), Hammett's story found a worldwide audience and his hero, Sam Spade, became a household name. Now, three-quarters of a century later, that's still the case. More inside.
posted by matteo (32 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The publication milestone is not going unnoticed:
• Vintage Books is putting out anniversary editions of The Maltese Falcon as well as Hammett's The Thin Man and Red Harvest (all $11.95) and Vintage Hammett ($9.95), selections from his books.

• The San Francisco Public Library is hosting an exhibit featuring more than 60 items related to The Maltese Falcon through March 31. It was in San Francisco that Hammett rose to fame.

• NPR's Morning Edition tours Hammett's San Francisco Monday.

•CBS News Sunday Morning has a Hammett story scheduled for Feb. 27 that includes interviews with his daughter and granddaughter.

• Hammett's San Francisco apartment building at 891 Post St. will be dedicated as a National Literary Landmark by Friends of Libraries U.S.A. on March 19. Hammett lived there from 1926 to 1929; it served as the model for Sam Spade's apartment.

The first chapter's here


Exploring Sam Spade's San Francisco

posted by matteo at 9:51 AM on February 14, 2005

Hammett's SF apartment, 891 Post St
posted by matteo at 9:54 AM on February 14, 2005

Touring Hammett's Old Haunts

Don Herron has led a Dashiell Hammett tour for nigh on 30 years, but he didn't get the full weight of it until recently, when he borrowed the key to 891 Post St., Apt. 401, and sat up all night reading "The Maltese Falcon" for the ninth or 10th time.

This apartment building is the terminus of a downtown walk that starts at the Samuels clock in front of the Flood Building. There, leaning against the blue-and-gold lamppost is Herron, 53, unmistakable among the throng of Market and Powell, in an overcoat, Borsalino and cap-toed oxfords. A cabbie by night, he talks like a detective. "I've got the snappy patter down," he says with a trace of his native Tennessee.

His Hammett tour (which costs $10; visit www.donherron.com) takes four hours. This is the abridged version, five blocks up and five blocks over in an hour flat.

posted by matteo at 9:56 AM on February 14, 2005

Don't forget the first film version, from the year after the novel came out.
posted by OmieWise at 9:57 AM on February 14, 2005

And the second film version, from 1936.

I ride the bus past Burritt Street, where Brigid O'Shaughnessy shot Miles Archer, almost every day. The street sign is often modified to read "Burritto Street."
posted by kirkaracha at 10:20 AM on February 14, 2005

Script of third film version - the Huston/Bogart one here (PDF link)
posted by Jos Bleau at 10:40 AM on February 14, 2005

Hammett and Chandler pretty much defined the genre. Can anyone suggest other authors in the same vein? I've read everything those two put out...
posted by cosmicbandito at 11:02 AM on February 14, 2005

they're not exactly like DH and RC, but Cornell Woolrich and Jim Thompson are American masters
posted by matteo at 11:05 AM on February 14, 2005

I got into Hammett via Wim Wenders (and his obsession with the author) and while not a fan of the "hard-boiled" novel, I did enjoy a collection of short stories written by Hammett as well as some biographies. Of course, this was after having lived a few blocks away from his Post St. apartment (semi-obliviously!).
posted by shoepal at 11:09 AM on February 14, 2005

Hammett and Chandler pretty much defined the genre. Can anyone suggest other authors in the same vein? I've read everything those two put out...

Try this page on Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction. and this page too.
posted by vacapinta at 11:13 AM on February 14, 2005

Raymond Chandler wrote a great tribute to Hammett in the introduction to "The Simple Art of Murder".

Can anyone suggest other authors in the same vein?

Try James M. Cain, David Goodis, and Horace McCoy.
posted by fuzz at 11:19 AM on February 14, 2005

Lots of covers for The Maltese Falcon over the years, and this cool map of "Downtown San Francisco: Scene of Intrigue and Betrayal in 'The Maltese Falcon.'"

The same site has a photo tour of the inside of what's probably Hammett's Post Street apartment, and there's an SF Weekly profile of the guy that lives in the apartment.

Like most of Hammett's novels, The Maltese Falcon was serialized in Black Mask Magazine, "a pulp magazine launched in April 1920 by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan to support the loss-making but prestigious literary magazine Smart Set."

The 1941 film of The Maltese Falcon is generally regarded as the first film noir, but this essay argues that it's more of a transitional film that introduces many film noir elements.

James Ellroy (most famous for writing L.A. Confidential) considers himself a follower of Hammett's tradition, although probably more like Hammett's Continental Op than Sam Spade.
posted by kirkaracha at 11:29 AM on February 14, 2005

Hello.... Yes, this is Spade.... Yes, I got it. I've been waiting to hear from you.... Who?... Mr. Gutman? Oh, yes, sure!... Now--the sooner the better.... Twelve C.... Right. Say Fifteen minutes.... Right.

I am home with the flu, and by coincidence it was Sam Spade (and Jack Daniels) that are temporarily providing will to live, otherwise in short supply. But I wasn't aware of the anniversary, thanks to matteo--and Hammett. (Though the Falcon is one of the few hard-boiled tales I own; as a general rule I prefer my murder cosy, a la Allingham, Christie, Georgette Heyer, Josephine Tey. I've often wished Beatrix Potter had tried her hand at something deadly. "'Now, my dears,' said old Mrs. Rabbit one morning, 'you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don't go into Mr. McGregor's garden: your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.'"--there's the hand of a potential master there.)

A question for the fans: exactly how does "hard-boiled" relate to noir? I realize noir is more of a movie category, but are there novels from the classic era that qualify?
posted by jfuller at 11:39 AM on February 14, 2005

I think the work of Cornell Woolrich (ie, Night Has A Thousand Eyes, 1945) probably defines noir.
posted by SPrintF at 11:46 AM on February 14, 2005

It's my understanding that 'hard boiled' was a general synonym for the 'tough' workingmen of the turn of the last century. They carried hard-boiled eggs in their lunches.

So tough detectives, unlike the 'soft' intellectuals such as Sherlock Holmes, acquired the 'hard boiled' moniker.

Don't know if any of that is true, but that's what I heard somewhere.
posted by Jos Bleau at 11:49 AM on February 14, 2005

yes, "hard-boiled" for me is synonym to the private-eye, kick-ass, macho style that's more typical of the Sam Spade-like hero (see Mike Hammer et al lesser incarnations of the same character). noir for me is more of a psychological category -- hence the Woolrich suggestion, as noted above

anyway: Billy Wilder on film noir

*emails jfuller a cup of chicken soup*
posted by matteo at 12:03 PM on February 14, 2005

> *emails jfuller a cup of chicken soup*

fuller feebly tips hat, gratefully opens attachment without even scanning it. It can't contain any viruses I don't already have.

posted by jfuller at 12:26 PM on February 14, 2005

The worst thing about The Maltese Falcon is that he never wrote any sequels. He went to all the work creating such a great detective character and then only used him for one novel. I love the Continental Op stories and Red Harvest but would it have killed him to write one more adventure of Sam Spade?
posted by octothorpe at 12:47 PM on February 14, 2005

They carried hard-boiled eggs in their lunches.

Heh. These guys didn't carry tough eggs, they were tough eggs. Not soft in the middle.
posted by pracowity at 1:07 PM on February 14, 2005

Sam Spade appeared in three Hammett short stories ("A Man Called Spade," "Too Many Have Lived," and "They Can Only Hang You Once"), which are part of the Nightmare Town collection, although they're supposedly not very good.

Hammett didn't write it, but "The Khandi Tooth Mystery," was a sequel to The Maltese Falcon:
Both The Adventures of Sam Spade and the great mystery anthology show Suspense were both produced by the same man, William Speir. During the first year or two that Sam Spade was on the air, Suspense was an hour show, hosted by Robert Montgomery. To get fans of Suspense listening to Sam Spade, Speir produced a special one-hour Spade episode called "The Khandi Tooth Caper" and aired it on Suspense.

The episode is a direct sequel to The Maltese Falcon, with Spade once again meeting Gutman, Cairo, and another "gunsel." It explains what happened to the real Falcon, alludes to Brigid O'Shaugnessy's fate, and sets Spade and the bad guys at odds as they again contend in the search for another quest object, the fabled Khandi Tooth.
posted by kirkaracha at 2:03 PM on February 14, 2005 [1 favorite]

jfuller: If you prefer you murder cozy you may want to give the Lord Peter Wismey series by Dorothy Sayers.
As for other 'hard boiled' detectives, some would consider the Spenser series to qualify (although it's more modern than most)
posted by Quip at 2:28 PM on February 14, 2005

I love the Continental Op stories

I actually liked those best, but I suppose that's because I came to Hammett sick there was no more Chandler to be read.

I'd second the recommendation of the Spenser series (Parker finished Chandler's Poodle Springs and did an ok job by me) with the caveat that the series ended about 10 years ago. Parker continues to mail in books about a man who fought in Korea, but it's not the same. The edge is gone and it's tough to imagine anyone intimidated by Spenser or Hawk in their Golden Years.
posted by yerfatma at 3:09 PM on February 14, 2005

Also, great title. Reminds me of one of my favorite Marlowe-isms . . .

"I don't like your attitude."
"I'm not selling it."
posted by yerfatma at 3:10 PM on February 14, 2005 [1 favorite]

Was always a Chandler man m'self, but to The Maltese Falcon, movie and book, I owe:

The Flitcraft Parable
My mental image of what a MacGuffin means.
A deep an abiding respect for Peter Lorre.
posted by Hildago at 3:17 PM on February 14, 2005

Oh how I love his book "The Red Harvest". Anyone who wants to read an amazing dark detective novel should check it out. It is about a bitter detective who comes to hate a small town so deeply that he carefully shepherds all its greedy, small minded citizens into catastrophic self destruction. It was remade as Yojimbo (Kurosawa) and A Fistful of Dollars but the book is far better than either.

He also has an excellent collection of short stories mostly featuring this same detective character called "The Big Knockover".
posted by Voivod at 4:00 PM on February 14, 2005


posted by AaronRaphael at 4:38 PM on February 14, 2005

It was remade as Yojimbo (Kurosawa) and A Fistful of Dollars

And Miller's Crossing.

One thing that's fun about living in San Francisco and reading Hammett is that today's Muni bus lines have the same numbers as the streetcar lines in the books. ("Muni" is short for "Municipal Railway.")
posted by kirkaracha at 4:54 PM on February 14, 2005

Just re-reading the thread and I wanted to second the Ellroy suggestion: L.A. Confidential, The Black Dahlia, White Jazz and American Tabloid are all fantastic. The other books (especially My Dark Places, which is non-fiction) are very good too. If you have to read just one, go with American Tabloid, which is the start of his current trilogy and a very different look at Howard Hughes.
posted by yerfatma at 4:55 PM on February 14, 2005

Here's a sidenote, when Hammett/Knopf signed The Maltese Falcon over for film & radio rights over to Warner Bros. they (Warner) thought they owned the character of Sam Spade outright. Hammett sold character rights out for Spade for radio to the Regis Radio Corporation (over Columbia Broadcasting System facilities) which produced "The Khandi Tooth Mystery". Warner wasn't happy. So they sued.
posted by lilnemo at 8:07 PM on February 14, 2005

I was just about to post the following snippet as my favorite line in any detective movie ever, but then I saw the post title. I'm posting it anyway, so there.

Joel Cairo (frustrated): You always have a very smooth explanation.
Sam Spade: What do you want me to do -- learn to stutter?
posted by shmegegge at 5:27 AM on February 15, 2005

Ahhh ... one of my all-time favourite re-readable books.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 2:11 PM on February 15, 2005

If you can't get enough Hammett, I recommend Diane Johnson's biography, Life of Dashiell Hammett.
posted by goofyfoot at 5:33 PM on February 15, 2005

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