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The Maltese Falcon | Context


The Hard-Boiled Detective

Dashiell Hammett's private detective Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon was one of the most popular of the first hard-boiled detective characters, capturing the imagination of thousands of readers as a tough-guy private eye who brings criminals to justice. Such detectives live in a morally compromised world in which the ends justify the means and violence and deceit are commonplace.

The first appearance of a hard-boiled detective is believed to be in Edgar Allan Poe's 1841 short story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." However, most literary critics consider Hammett to be the founder of the hard-boiled detective, while others view Hammett's stories as having perfected the hard-boiled category of fiction, and still others credit Hammett with popularizing the hard-boiled detective story so much that it became its own genre. Each view showcases Hammett's legacy and enduring impact on American literature and film: he originated a new way of presenting characters and plot situations in the mystery genre.

As the archetype of the hard-boiled detective, Sam Spade set the standards for the genre. Spade is a gruff, self-confidant private eye who is tougher than the criminals he fights. He is cynical due to the violent crimes he has witnessed and skeptical of authority because of corruption he has seen, not only in career criminals but also in politicians and law enforcement. Spade is also a pragmatist. Because he focuses on results, he displays a capacity for morally ambiguous behavior. As a result of his distrust of others, he prefers to work alone.

Alienation was something many identified with at this time. Rampant crime and the emergence of gangsters resulted from the anti-alcohol legislation known as Prohibition in the 1920s, followed by the economic difficulties of the Great Depression in the 1930s. The hard-boiled detective's alienation from the world around him resonated with readers. Another highly successful hard-boiled detective novelist, Raymond Chandler, much influenced by Hammett, provided this insight in the introduction to his collection Trouble Is My Business (1939): "[these] characters live in a world gone wrong ... and the streets are dark with something more than night." In hard-boiled fiction criminals are portrayed realistically, and violence and murder happen around and with the detective, not only before he appears in a scene. Many characters in these works have a sense that the world is indifferent to suffering and develop their own code of ethics and strategies for survival.

Hammett also established stylistic elements in hard-boiled detective stories, especially in his use of language. He used minimalist sentences—short, direct, and to the point with little descriptive embellishment. Dialogue is filled with zingers, sharp witty remarks, and comebacks, as in this exchange between Joel Cairo and Sam Spade. "Cairo hesitated, said dubiously: 'You have always, I must say, a smooth explanation ready.'" Spade replies, "What do you want me to do? Learn to stutter?"

In addition hard-boiled detective fiction often includes a character who is a femme fatale, a French term that literally means "fatal (dangerous) woman." A femme fatale is a powerful female who brings disaster to men as she manipulates them to gain power, freedom, or wealth. While the male characters are usually attracted to the femme fatale's aura of charm and mystery, the hard-boiled detective is more likely to see through her act, or at least figure it out before it's too late. In The Maltese Falcon Spade doesn't completely trust the character of Brigid O'Shaughnessy when he first meets her, despite her apparent innocence and timidity.

Hammett's work also went on to impact American movies. Film adaptations of books like The Maltese Falcon extended the popularity of his tough, unsentimental style. Starring American actors Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, the film introduced the hard-boiled detective to a much wider audience than pulp fiction readers. The film gained popularity in France, where its style was named film noir, literally "black film." The hard-boiled detective stories as film noir became prevalent in the movie industry from the early 1940s to the late 1950s. To convey the cynical hard-boiled detective working in a corrupt world, film noir features harsh lighting and deep shadows that create a sinister atmosphere appropriate for a world dominated by doom, betrayal, and tragedy.

These characteristics of hard-boiled detective fiction have thrived beyond its origins in the early 20th century. Crime writers such as Michael Connelly, Walter Mosely, and Sue Grafton, for example, still use many of the same elements in their crime stories. There are even annual festivals to honor this genre and its roots in pulp fiction, such as PulpFest. The hard-boiled detective fiction that Hammett pioneered became an entrenched genre in American fiction.

Pulp Fiction in the 1920s and 1930s

During Dashiell Hammett's writing career in the 1920s and 1930s, pulp fiction magazines flourished in America. Pulp fiction got its name from the inexpensive paper on which these magazines were printed. To keep printing costs down, publishers used wood pulp that consisted of recovered paper and sawdust residue instead of the high-quality, glossy paper used by magazines that ran advertisements. Pulp paper is rough and untrimmed, and it yellows and disintegrates quickly. The low quality of the paper kept the price to customers down, which made it cost effective for people who could not afford to buy more expensive magazines.

Unfortunately it also meant that the fiction published in these magazines was often considered low-quality writing. It is true that much pulp fiction was poorly composed, quickly written for low pay, and about lurid subjects or sensationalized events. However, a number of quality writers got their starts or supplemented their incomes by writing for pulp magazines, including American writer Upton Sinclair, English writer H.G. Wells, American novelist Raymond Chandler, American lawyer and author Erle Stanley Gardner, and Dashiell Hammett. With titles such as True Romances, True Detective Mystery Magazine, and Horror Stories, pulp fiction magazines spanned several genres, including romances, crime stories, thrillers, and westerns. They provided readers with an escape from the unpleasant realities of life in the aftermath of World War I (1914–18) and during the Great Depression (1929–39).

In addition to short stories, pulp fiction magazines sometimes serialized novels, with one major episode, or chapter, running in each issue until the novel was completed. Hammett's novels The Maltese Falcon, Red Harvest, and The Dain Curse were first serialized in Black Mask, a top pulp fiction magazine that specialized in crime fiction (1920–50). Pulp fiction magazines also ran series with ongoing characters, such as Hammett's Continental Op, a private detective who appeared in more than a half-dozen short stories published in Black Mask. The pulp fiction of the 1920s and 1930s helped shape popular fiction for decades to come.

Pulp magazines introduced or widely disseminated to a mass market lively hard-boiled detectives (Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe), crime-fighting heroes ("The Shadow"), science fiction tales, and modern romance stories with dramatic plot twists.

Prohibition and Corruption

In 1920 with the passage of the National Prohibition Act and its ratification as the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, it became illegal to manufacture, distribute, or sell alcohol throughout the United States. In fact Prohibition (1920–33) led to many unintended consequences as an enormous black market emerged for illegal alcohol to satisfy millions of consumers. Prohibition led to speakeasies (illicit nightclubs and liquor stores), bootlegging (making, transporting, and selling illegal liquor), distilling operations (setups to produce pure, high-alcohol condensation that could be lethal), smuggling liquor in from other countries, forging prescriptions for "medicinal" whiskey, and other lucrative, high-profit illegal undertakings. Alcohol consumption actually increased a few years after Prohibition went into effect.

As gangs exploited this emerging black market and fought turf wars for control of the profits, the crime rate increased. Prohibition helped to create organized crime in the United States, as high-profile criminals like Al Capone raked in millions of dollars. Political leaders, Coast Guard members, U.S. Customs agents, prosecutors, judges, and police often were intimidated by the gangsters into inaction or were corrupt themselves and accepted bribes to ignore the illegal activities.

Prohibition as part of American life deeply influenced Dashiell Hammett's fiction, especially his creation of tough, hard-boiled detectives who see violence and corruption every day. Many readers living through the Prohibition era made Hammett a popular author in his day because the hard-boiled detective could seem to them a response to the criminality and corruption of the times. Hammett's private eyes have an underlying mistrust and disdain for politicians and law enforcement and a loathing for unbridled greed. Both private investigators Continental Op and Sam Spade develop their own code of ethics in Hammett's fiction: they fight criminals believing that a good outcome justifies any wrongdoings that they themselves may commit to accomplish it. Hammett's private detectives do not neatly fit into simple moral categories of good or bad as they flaunt rules, defy authority, and skirt around legalities to bring wrongdoers to justice. Published in 1930, The Maltese Falcon diverted readers with its hard-nosed detective who outwits crooks and makes sure they get what's coming to them, even if he has to use underhanded tactics to do so.

By the early 1930s even original supporters of Prohibition realized it had created corrupt connections among gangsters, the court system, and politicians. In 1933 the 21st Amendment was ratified and repealed the 18th Amendment, ending the Prohibition era. By then the hard-boiled detective fiction that Hammett pioneered had become an entrenched genre in American fiction that had influence over many writers for years to come.


The Maltese Falcon was published in book form in 1930, on the border between the Roaring 20s and the Great Depression that followed the collapse of the stock market in 1929. Many real changes in the role of women in society had taken place in the 1920s in the United States, beginning with the establishment of women's right to vote at the start of the decade. Women entered the workforce in larger numbers after the end of World War I in 1918. In conjunction with this, they experienced more freedom in a variety of areas. For them the 1920s were a hedonistic decade to some extent focused on having a good time. Women felt sexually liberated to a greater extent than ever before. They smoked in public for the first time, shortened their floor-length skirts to show off their legs, cut their hair short, and felt free to flirt. However, underneath it all limitations still existed about women's roles. The general expectation remained that women's true purpose was to find a husband, settle down, and have children. Women were not really considered men's equals but rather men's and children's caretakers.

The view of women in The Maltese Falcon is often stereotypical of the times described, especially where female sexuality is concerned. Women are unfaithful and hysterical (Iva Archer); conniving, blood-thirsty seductresses (femme fatale Brigid O'Shaughnessy); or loyal but sexless handmaidens (Spade's secretary, Effie Perine). While there is some suggestion that Spade's treatment of these women is manipulative and therefore not admirable, his many conquests, like James Bond's in the 20th century, for many readers may add to, more than detract from, his manliness.

Homosexuals don't fare much better than women in the novel. The Maltese Falcon has rightly been accused of being homophobic. Despite the greater sexual freedom of the Roaring 20s, as the 1930s dawned homosexuality faced major opposition in America, with police and lawmakers cracking down on gays. Hammett shows, through stereotypical descriptions, that Joel Cairo and Wilmer Cook are homosexual because they are effeminate, resembling women more than men in their dress, tastes, and actions.

Cairo, for example, is described as walking with "short, mincing, bobbing steps." He smells like perfume and wears multiple rings and colorful clothes. He speaks in "a high-pitched thin voice" and sits down "primly, crossing his ankles." Effie comes right out and tells Spade that he is "queer." Spade himself calls Cairo "the fairy." Spade makes allusions to Wilmer Cook as also being a homosexual. In one scene when Wilmer and Cairo are together, Spade mocks their behavior as "the course of true love."

Like the treatment of women in the novel as sexual objects, the treatment of homosexuality reflects the prejudice of Hammett's times. In the novel the stereotypical presentation of homosexuality may also serve an additional purpose. It makes Sam Spade seem even more stereotypically manly. This helps cement Spade's role as an icon of traditional masculinity.

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