NEA Big Read
The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon

by Dashiell Hammett

I’m one of the few—if there are any more—people moderately literate who take the detective story seriously.

Dashiell Hammett, 1932 (Courtesy of Josephine Hammett)

Josephine Reed: And now, The Big Read.

Scott Simon reads from The Maltese Falcon.

"Hello. ... Yes, speaking. ... Dead? ... Yes.... Fifteen minutes. Thanks." [...]

Cold steamy air blew in through two open windows, bringing with it half a dozen times a minute the Alcatraz foghorn's dull moaning. [...]

Where Bush Street roofed Stockton before slipping downhill to Chinatown, Spade paid his fare and left the taxicab. San Francisco's night fog, thin, clammy, and penetrant, blurred the street. A few yards from where Spade had dismissed the taxicab a small group of men stood looking up an alley. Two women stood with a man on the other side of Bush Street, looking at the alley. There were faces at the windows.

Reed: That was Scott Simon reading The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Welcome to The Big Read. The Big Read is a program created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. I'm Josephine Reed. The largest reading program in American history, The Big Read is designed to unite communities through the transformative joys of literature. And now here's your host, poet and former chair of the NEA, Dana Gioia.

Dana Gioia: Today, we will discuss the classic detective thriller, The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett.

Matthew Bruccoli: He is permanently placed at the top of the pile in the hard-boiled school. Maltese Falcon is without a doubt the most widely read, most widely thought, most widely discussed novel of that movement.

Diane Johnson: That so perfectly represents the '20s and the tough guys of that period, the gangsters. All the things that now belong to history.

Walter Mosely: The story of The Maltese Falcon is looking for your dreams. And the term of the Maltese Falcon is this is something you are never going to find.

Maureen Corrigan: What's the point of it all? I mean that's what the book sort of asks and that's what's so wonderful about Sam Spade, is that he laughs, he knows it is all pointless. Love, connection, the only thing that has a point is loyalty to your buddy.

Joe Gores: The story of The Maltese Falcon is who killed Miles Archer.

Gioia: Dashiell Hammett's 1930 novel The Maltese Falcon set a new high mark for detective fiction. One to which all serious future writers of the genre would aspire. Not only did Hammett introduce readers to a new kind of hard-boiled hero with Samuel Spade, he also gave us a book that crossed the line from pulp fiction to a great literature.

Novelist, Adrian McKinty.

Adrian McKinty: Maltese Falcon is a story of a detective called Sam Spade. And, he is part of this detective agency of Spade and Archer who are partners and they have this small office in San Francisco. And, into his office one day, a lady comes in who we subsequently learn is Brigid O'Shaughnessy. And, as the story goes on, we discover that she's involved in this nefarious scheme to get this object, this beautiful medieval object called the Maltese Falcon.

Gioia: Literary critic, Maureen Corrigan.

Corrigan: And, Spade is also trying to solve the mystery of the death of his partner Miles Archer and the two plots seem to intertwine here.

Gioia: Novelist, Walter Mosley.

Mosely: Hammett is always talking about heroes who are flawed. And so here you have Sam Spade who has been having an affair with his partner's wife and his partner gets murdered. And Sam Spade has to figure out where he stands in relation to the world after the murder of this partner who he's cuckold.

Corrigan: Spade is competing with this group of criminals led by a mastermind named Gutman to try to find the Falcon first. And, of course also along the way he meets the femme fatale, Brigid O'Shaughnessy.

Gioia: At the start of the novel, the beautiful Brigid O'Shaughnessy enters Sam Spade office with the phony story. But, it doesn't take him long to learn her real motive for seeking his help. She's desperately trying to recover the priceless Falcon before the others can find it. One by one, Spade meets the criminals who work with, and often against, Brigid.

Adrian McKinty.

McKinty: This is a very motley crew, these are people who you would not ordinarily see together. Gutman is the guy who is obsessed with his own image. He's a bon vivant, a throwback character to the 19th century. And Joel Cairo was is unctuous, slimy and creepy. And then there is the punk kid enforcer. And, he is very, very young and completely out-gunned and out-classed by Spade.

Gioia: Novelist Diane Johnson knows the setting of The Maltese Falcon well. She lives much of the year in Sam Spade's fog city.

Johnson: This book takes place in San Francisco. And it very much evokes the atmosphere of San Francisco with the fog and hills and the little alleys and the atmosphere of rapport with ships coming in, sinister people.

Julie Rivett: It actually takes place between December 5 and 10, 1928.

Gioia: Dashiell Hammett's granddaughter, Julie Rivett.

Rivett: You can walk through the novel, through the streets of San Francisco. You can find the same hotels, the same restaurants, the apartments, the streets.

Gioia: Writer Joe Gores worked for years in San Francisco as a private detective and repo man. He also wrote the novel Hammett, which was made into a film in 1982.

Gores: San Francisco is a very interesting city to have a novel set in because unlike almost any other major city, there is very little organized crime in San Francisco, never has been. Back in the '20s, they used to send those guys back to Chicago in a box carrying a coffin, you know. San Francisco corruption was local and they wanted to keep it local.

Gioia: One of the reasons The Maltese Falcon endures today is because of its unforgettable and complicated leading man, Sam Spade, who remains a literary and cinematic icon.

Adrian McKinty.

McKinty: Sam Spade is like a bolt from the blue. He is like nothing you find anywhere else in American letters. Mark Twain started giving us very realistic American archetypes, but I think it was Dashiell Hammett who really presented them in all their authenticity to us.

Gioia: Joe Gores.

Gores: Spade is indeed the epitome of the private detective. The best private detective I know is a guy name David Fechheimer in San Francisco. Dave always says Spade is absolutely what a private detective should be. And what we all do sort of think we are. He's the man.

Gioia: Maureen Corrigan.

Corrigan: We're told in the first paragraph that Sam Spade was a blond satan and right there you get this mixture with Spade of the hero, but also the devil. I think you could read this novel a thousand times and you couldn't say for sure which side of the law Sam Spade is really suppose to be on.

Scott Simon reads from The Maltese Falcon.

Samuel Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down from high flat temples in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

Gioia: Walter Mosley.

Mosely: The beginning of the novel, Sam Spade has one set of morals, which allows him, for instance, to cuckold his partner without having any disdain for him really. It's an existentialist book in as much as somebody has to make a decision about how they're going to live their life. And, Sam Spade does that and Sam Spade changes. He becomes a different man. Even though, I think he doesn't believe it is possible to become a different man.

Gioia: Book critic and NEA Director of Literature, David Kipen.

Kipen: Hammett was born in 1894 in pretty rural Maryland on his grandfather's farm. He spent a lot of his youth in Baltimore. His father was kind of n'er do well, and so Hammett himself left school after just, I think, a year of high school and picked up odd jobs. He was a messenger boy for the Baltimore and Ohio Rail Road. But, I mean, nothing really clicked until he found the Pinkertons.

Gioia: Julie Rivett.

Rivett: My grandfather responded to an ad and took a job with Pinkerton's Detective Agency. It was the kind of job that was really well suited to his intellectual curiosity. He wasn't one to sit behind the desk and do the same thing day after day. Pinkerton's allowed him to go out in the world and experience things that he never experienced before. He got to meet all kinds of people, crooks and cops and all kinds of characters. So, that kind of work helped him build his repertoire as a detective and as a writer.

Gioia: Diane Johnson.

Johnson: Hammett learned a lot from the Pinkerton operatives' manual, which he quotes from in some of his early works. He learned a lot about detection and the sort of rough side of law enforcement and struggle.

Gioia: Joe Gores.

Gores: Hammett had been a private eye. He knew what it was like to stand there and say, "Am I going to die?" This guy that's shooting at me.... You know, I've been shot at a few times and you know, it's "Jesus, my God." You know, you are scared stiff and he has been there and very few writers have been there.

Gioia: Hammett joined the army during World War 1. Those serious health problems resulted in an honorable discharge after only four months. He moved West, signing up again with the Pinkertons and finally settled in San Francisco. Hammett suffered from tuberculosis and other respiratory illnesses his entire life. But there was one positive consequence of his poor heath, he became an avid reader. He would often joke about trying to read every book in the San Francisco Public Library.

Scholar, Matthew Bruccoli.

Bruccoli: Apparently, the seed, the germ was reading about the crusades and the Knights of Malta and the novel grew out of that.

Gioia: Adrian McKinty discusses the origins of the coveted falcon.

McKinty: The Knights of Malta made a fortune guarding shipping going through the Mediterranean and through piracy and because they were granted the Island of Malta by the Spanish Crown, they decided to give a gift every year to the Spanish Crown of this beautifully jewel encrusted falcon as a token of their gratitude. Unfortunately, the falcon goes missing in the Middle Ages and then supposedly the falcon turns up in Constantinople in 1920s. And since a lot of art dealers and other n'er do wells are looking for this Maltese Falcon, Brigid O'Shaughnessy and the people who are with her, think that the falcon has ended up in San Francisco.

Gioia: Walter Mosley.

Mosely: Brigid O'Shaughnessy is the classic femme fatal. She knows how to use her beauty and her guile to get men to do what she wants them to do. And every man who falls into that web dies. She represents not evil, but danger.

Sam Spade might be falling for the red-haired bomb shell Brigid, but from the start, he doesn't entirely trust her. He learns about the missing falcon from Joe Cairo. Soon after, Spade pays Brigid a visit.

Scott Simon reads from The Maltese Falcon.

The eagerness with which Brigid O'Shaughnessy welcomed Spade suggested that she had been not entirely certain of his coming. [...]

"Well, what did he say?" she asked with half-playful petulance.

"He offered me five thousand dollars for the black bird."

She started, her teeth tore the end of her cigarette, and her eyes, after a swift alarmed glance at Spade, turned away from him. [...]

"And what did you say?"

"Five thousand dollars is a lot of money." [...]

"But, Mr. Spade, you promised to help me." Her hands were on his arm. "I trusted you. You can't—" She broke off, took her hands from his sleeve and worked them together.

Spade smiled gently into her troubled eyes. "Don't let's try to figure out how much you've trusted me," he said. "I promised to help you—sure—but you didn't say anything about any black birds."

"But you must've known or—or you wouldn't have mentioned it to me. You do know now. You won't—you can't—treat me like that." Her eyes we're cobalt-blue prayers."

She lifted her shoulders and hands and let them fall in a gesture that accepted defeat. "It is far more than I could ever offer you, if I must bid for your loyalty."

Spade laughed. His laughter was brief and somewhat bitter. "That is good," he said, "coming from you. What have you given me besides money? Have you given me any of your confidence? any of the truth? any help in helping you? Haven't you tried to buy my loyalty with money and nothing else? Well, if I'm peddling it, why shouldn't I let it go to the highest bidder?"

"I've given you all the money I have." Tears glistened in her white-ringed eyes. Her voice was hoarse, vibrant. "I've thrown myself on your mercy, told you that without your help I'm utterly lost. What else is there?" She suddenly moved close to him on the settee and cried angrily: "Can I buy you with my body?"

Their faces were a few inches apart. Spade took her face between his hands and he kissed her mouth roughly and contemptuously. Then he sat back and said: "I'II think it over."

Gioia: Joe Gores discusses a memorable scene in which Spade searches Brigid's apartment looking for the black bird. Although he becomes romantically involved with his client, Spade refuses to let love get in the way of doing his job thoroughly and professionally. Joe Gores.

Gores: Everybody puzzled over the fact, why did Spade sit down and have a cup of coffee in Brigid's apartment after he had searched it. Why would he do that? That is officious thing to do... bah, ba, ba, ba, ba. I said no, he was establishing dominance. When I was a repo man, if a guy ever left his lunch in his car, I ate it. I ate your lunch, buddy. You know, that's the thing, and that is what he was doing. He was literally eating Brigid's lunch, he was establishing control.

Gioia: You are listening to The Big Read from the National Endowment for the Arts. Today, we are discussing The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett.

Dashiell Hammett's hard-boiled hero, Sam Spade comes from a long time of fictional detectives. Though none of Spades predecessors were anything like him.

Crime writer, Adrian McKinty.

McKinty: If you look at the English detectives, Conan Doyle, you've got Sherlock Holmes and you've got Miss Marpel. This is 1920s—Dorothy L. Sayers' characters and Agatha Christie characters and their gentleman detectives, or amateur detectives. Sam Spade is completely different from those guys. He's hard bitten, he's hard nosed, he's brutal, he's cynical.

Gioia: Hammett is often compared to two other great detective authors, Raymond Chandler and Ross McDonald.

Former private eye, Joe Gores.

Gores: Chandler saw the private detective as a knight, "down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean." Ross McDonald saw him as a social worker; he's always trying to figure out how to help somebody. The Hammett hero is a guy who does his job and he follows his own rules of conduct.

Gioia: Adrian McKinty.

McKinty: I really like the way Spade takes command of every single conversation that he's in. The police may be accusing him of murder, they may be accusing him of double murder, he may have a gun pointed at him, he may be about to be clobbered on the head by a hood and yet Spade is in command of the conversation.

Gioia: In the opening pages, Miles Archer and the mysterious Thursby are shot dead. The police suspect Spade might be the killer. He's eventually called into the district attorney's office for an informal talk.

Scott Simon reads from The Maltese Falcon.

"Who killed Thursby?" Spade said, "I don't know."

Bryan grabbed his black eyeglass-ribbon between thumb and fingers and said knowingly, "Perhaps you don't, but you certainly can make an excellent guess."

"Maybe, but I wouldn't."

The District Attorney raised his eyebrows.

"I wouldn't." Spade repeated. He was serene. "My guess might be excellent or it might be crummy, but Mrs. Spade didn't raise any children dippy enough to make guesses in front of a district attorney, an assistant district attorney, and a stenographer."

"Why shouldn't you, if you've nothing to conceal?"

"Everybody," Spade responded mildly, "has something to conceal." [...]

Spade's lifted lip showed his eyetooth, "I thought this was an informal talk." [...]

"My clients are entitled to a decent amount of secrecy. Maybe I can be made to talk to a Grand Jury or even a Coroner's Jury, but I have not been called before either yet, and it's a cinch I am not going to advertise my clients business until I have too. Then again, you and the police have both accused me of being mixed up on the other night's murders. I've had trouble with both of you before. As far as I can see, my best chance of clearing myself with the trouble you are trying to make for me is by bringing in the murderers—all tied up. And my only chance of ever catching them and tying them up and bringing them in is by keeping away from you and the police, because neither of you show any signs of knowing what in hell it's all about." He rose and turned his head over a shoulder to address the stenographer. "Getting this all right son? Or I am going too fast for you?"

The stenographers looked at him with startled eyes and replied: "No, sir, I'm getting it all right."

"Good work," Spade said and turned to Bryan again. "Now, if you want to go the board and tell them I am obstructing justice and ask them to revoke my license, hop to it. You tried it before and it didn't get you anything but a good laugh all around." He picked up his hat.

Bryan began: "But look here—"

Spade said: "And I don't want anymore of these informal talks. I've got nothing to tell you or the police and I am God-damned tired of being called things by every crackpot on the city payroll. If you want to see me, pinch me or subpoena me or something and I'll come down with my lawyer." He put his hat on his head, said, "See you at the inquest, maybe," and stalked out.

Gioia: Critics disagree whether Hammett or Hemmingway first developed the crisp understated style that's associated with their writing. Though no one knows the answer, one thing's for sure, The Maltese Falcon is quintessential, hard-boiled fiction.

Julie Rivett.

Rivett: Hard-boiled fiction has at its heart a tough guy, a protagonist who's making his way through a dark world.

Gores: It is like diamonds, his work doesn't shatter, things bounce off it, it's hard.

McKinty: The defining attribute of hard-boiled is cynicism.

Kipen: This is tough, punchy, prose.

Rivett: There's no flowering us.

Gores: I would like to say it is like a seven minute egg.

Johnson: You crack them but they don't fall apart and I suppose that's the characteristic of Hammett's heroes.

McKinty: Hard-boiled only really works in America.

Gioia: Adrian McKinty.

McKinty: Now America is a diverse, new, bursting, violent, dark, beautiful country. When you've got the collision of all those forces coming together, especially newness. Newness brings the rich to the bottom and elevates the poor to the very the top. You can be a self-made success or a self-made failure in America. Americans think about the future whereas in Europe they think about the past all the time. Hard-boiled is a stance that looks towards tomorrow with a slightly optimistic, but also slightly weary, cynical eye.

Gioia: The Maltese Falcon is interrupted by a brief story within a story, it's the tale of the case Spade once worked on when he was searching for a missing man named Flit Craft.

David Kipen.

Kipen: Spade tells what's come to be called the Flit Craft parable to Brigid O'Shaughnessy. It's the story of a guy who basically drops out of his life and nobody knows quite why until Spade bumps into him years later and gets the story.

Gioia: Maureen Corrigan.

Corrigan: He said he was walking down the side walk one day and a beam fell from a construction site and almost hit him and killed him.

Kipen: Doesn't hurt him except maybe a chip on the concrete bounces up and nicks his cheek. That's the only visible scar but of course the invisible scar is that he has been, well, in Hammett's phrase, "he felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works."

Corrigan: And that's when Flit Craft realized he needed to change his life, deserted his wife and children.

Gioia: Julie Rivett.

Rivett: He suddenly realized that life was not orderly and planned the way that he thought that it was. So, he decided to align himself with that new worldview. And he took off and changed his life at random.

Scott Simon reads from The Maltese Falcon.

"He went to Seattle that afternoon," Spade said, "and from there by boat to San Francisco. For a couple of years he wandered around and then drifted back to the Northwest, and settled in Spokane and got married. His second wife didn't look like the first, but they were more alike than they were different. You know, the kind of women that play fair games of golf and bridge and like new salad-recipes. He wasn't sorry for what he had done. It seemed reasonable enough to him. And I think he even knew he had settled back naturally in the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma. But that's the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling."

Gioia: Walter Mosley.

Mosely: The story within a story is the heart of the novel. The dream he's chasing is also the life that he once led. And, I think that that story gives Spade his understanding of the world.

Kipen: The Maltese Falcon was a terrific success.

Gioia: David Kipen.

Kipen: This was the book that pretty much did what I think Hammett all along intended for it to do, which was to elevate the detective story to the realm of literature.

Gioia: Matthew Bruccoli.

Bruccoli: It's a world classic that has entered the knowledge of every literate person in the English-speaking world and most of the others. Enormously, prodigiously influential book.

Gioia: Although The Maltese Falcon was adopted for the screen three times, it was the last version in 1941, that became a classic. It also launched three famous film careers: leading man Humphrey Bogart had his breakthrough role, the corpulent stage actor Sydney Greenstreet announced his presence on the silver screen and John Houston made his directorial debut.

David Kipen.

Kipen: You would be hard put to point to another American literary classic that resulted in a movie of such great distinction as The Maltese Falcon. It's a terrific adaptation, which on one hand is very faithful; I mean the joke about it for years was that Houston tossed a copy of the paperback to his secretary and said change the margins on this over the weekend because we want to start shooting on Monday. Well, of course, that is absurd. Need also, many have said, more or less invented film noir, the idea of dark, sordid, frequently crime-driven Americans' stories in black and white.

Gioia: Hammett published all five of his novels within the span of only five years. Once he reached 40, he never published another serious work even though he lived to be 66. The chronic illnesses that had plagued Hammett for most of his life finally killed him in 1961.

Toward the end of the novel the criminals who have been tirelessly searching for the Maltese Falcon finally have the bird within their grasp.

Walter Mosley.

Mosely: It's the dingus, there's always a dingus. There's something that we're looking for, there's something or someone that's lost. And this one is the Maltese Falcon, it's the dingus, and, and the wonderful thing is that's what Sam Spade calls it. He says, so, we got the dingus here. Everybody's talking about how its worth with all of this money but he just sees it as the thing that is holding this caper together basically. It stands for all the dreams of all the characters except for Sam Spade.

Gioia: Early morning in San Francisco, Spade and the criminals patiently wait in his apartment. The doorbell rings, Spade opens the door to find Effie Perine, his endlessly faithful secretary, his invaluable angel holding the dingus wrapped in brown paper. The criminals stir with anticipation.

Scott Simon reads from The Maltese Falcon.

Spade shut the door and carried the parcel into the living room. Gutman's face was red and his cheeks quivered. Cairo and Brigid O'Shaughnessy came to the table as Spade put the parcel there. They were excited. The boy rose, pale and tense, but he remained by the sofa, staring under curling lashes at the others.

Spade stepped back from table saying: "There you are."

Gutman's fat fingers made short work of cord and paper and excelsior, and he had the black bird in his hands. "Ah," he said huskily, "now, after seventeen years!" His eyes were moist.

Cairo licked his red lips and worked his hands together. The girl's lower lip was between her teeth. She and Cairo, like Gutman, and like Spade and the boy, were breathing heavily. The air in the room was chilly and stale, and thick with tobacco smoke.

Gutman set the bird down on the table again and fumbled at a pocket. "It's it," he said, "but we will make sure." Sweat glistened on his round cheeks. His fingers twitched as he took out a gold pocket-knife and opened it.

Gioia: Thanks for joining The Big Read. This program was created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. It was written and produced by Dan Stone. Readings from The Maltese Falconn were by Scott Simon.

"Honey" performed by Jay McShann, used with permission of Curious Girl Records. Also from Curious Girl Records are Mill Hinton's "Time after Time" and "Time on my Hands" as well as "It Don't Mean a Thing" and "Slap Happy," featuring Lionell Hampton. John Barry's main titles from the film "Hammett," courtesy of Linda Freidman Music. Instrumental selections from the original score to the film "Brick" by Nathan Johnson and The Cinematic Underground. Used with permission of Nathan Johnson and Choplogic music. Thanks to Pop Sounds, Santa Monica, California for the sound effects.

Special thanks to Matt Fitzhenry, Carolyn O'Keefe, Pepper Smith, Ken Hoffman, Erika Koss, Adam Kampe and to our contributors, Matthew Bruccoli, Maureen Corrigan, Joe Gores, Diane Johnson, David Kipen, Adrian McKinty, Walter Mosley and Julie Rivett.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Dana Gioia.

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