The Maltese Falcon
2.11.2003 by , every Tuesday.
The Maltese Falcon was one of the most influential detective novels of all time, and as such, it seems extremely clichéd. I had to constantly remind myself that it was written in 1930 and is one of the founding novels of American Noir, and is not a parody of the genre.
Sam Spade is a tough, solitary detective. One day Bridget O’Shaughnessy walks into his office. She’s sexy and deceptive and fickle. She’s got secrets that she doesn’t want to get out. But when Sam’s partner dies after taking her case, Sam wants to find out what happened.
Sam gets dragged into a deadly treasure hunt. The treasure is a priceless statue of a falcon, fashioned in the 16th Century by the Templars in Malta. Believed lost for centuries, it has resurfaced, and everybody wants it.
A fat man named Gutman hires Sam to get it for him, but Sam is also in the employ of Bridget and a Greek grifter named Joel Cairo, and he must decide where his loyalties lie. When he finally meets Gutman face-to-face they discuss whose side Sam is on:
”Let us talk about the black bird by all means, but first, sir, answer me a question, please, though maybe it’s an unnecessary one, so we’ll understand each other from the beginning. You’re here as Miss O’Shaughnessy’s representative?”In Gutman we can recognize a proto-James Bond super-villain character. There’s even a scene in which he tells Spade the entire history of the falcon and his plan to steal it, then leaves him drugged and unconscious. Spade’s way with women is also reminiscent of Bond. He effortlessly seduces women, but happily betrays them for his own gains.
Spade blew smoke above the fat man’s head in a long slanting plume. He frowned thoughtfully at the ash-tipped end of his cigar. He replied deliberately: “I can’t say yes or no. There’s nothing certain about it either way, yet.” He looked up at the fat man and stopped frowning. “It depends.”
“It depends on—?”
Spade shook his head. “If I knew what it depends on I could say yes or no.”
The fat man took a mouthful from his glass, swallowed it, and suggested: “Maybe it depends on Joel Cairo?”
Spade’s prompt “Maybe” was noncommittal. He drank.
The fat man leaned forward until his belly stopped him. His smile was ingratiating and so was his purring voice. “You could say, then, that the question is which one of them you’ll represent?”
“You could put it that way.”
“It will be one or the other?”
“I didn’t say that.”
The fat man’s eyes glistened. His voice sank to a throaty whisper asking: “Who else is there?”
Spade pointed his cigar at his own chest. “There’s me,” he said.
Joel Cairo is an interesting character in that he’s flamingly gay:
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 towards Spade with short, mincing, bobbing steps. The fragrance of chypre came with himAs Sam’s secretary puts it: “This guy is queer.”
The novel is not at all flattering towards homosexuality, and Spade has a violent hatred of the gay characters. Comparisons can be made between sizes of guns and masculinity. Sam, who doesn’t have to compensate for his manliness at all, carries no gun, while the small “gunsel” (30s slang for a young man exploited for gay sex) carries two huge ones.
The Maltese Falcon is considered by many to be the greatest American detective novel of all time. It’s a great read, and was highly influential on the genre. In reading it, you’ll be sure to recognize all the clichés that have built up since then. But just remember, this is where they all started.