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The Maltese Falcon is widely considered to be one of the best mystery stories all time. It has a gritty style and realism about it that makes it unique in my opinion. When looking into more about this book I learned that Hammett (the author) is credited by many to have created the specific genre (as it is known today) that the Maltese Falcon falls under called Hardboiled Fiction. I was intrigued by this section of mystery/crime stories and decided to investigate how the genre came to be and what made Hammett one of the key founders of the genre. In the following essay I will look at a few key aspects of Hardboiled fiction and its history. The first part will focus on the history of the genre, which includes what are the main aspects of it, where they were originally published among other key characteristics. Secondly, the rest of the paper will focus on Hammett, his history, and how many of the key characteristics of Hardboiled fictions main character reflects himself. The examination of Hammett’s character will focus on Sam Spade and specifically the story of The Maltese Falcon.
Hardboiled fiction is a type of crime and detective story started in the 1920’s. The characteristics of these stories are that they are much more realistic it terms of the description of fights, violence (usually organized crime), and the environment the story took place (urban most of the time). Usually in many of these stories the detective is very tough in the sense that they get involved in many altercations. The altercation tends to be a result of wit used by the main character. Wit and wisecracks are language used by the detectives in these stories to relate to the audience. Wisecracks were common language at the time these stories were popular, something that was recognizable in day to day conversation. Another characteristic about many detectives in Hardboiled fiction is that they work alone. Working alone suits their work as a hardboiled detective works in the grey area of the rules. They follow them loosely but perform acts that are on the border of being illegal. Lastly, detectives in these stories generally have a relationship with a very pretty girl in the story. They are attracted to them, but when it comes down to it the case is always more important than the girl.
Going a little bit deeper on the organized crime aspect of these types of stories, one can look at Prohibition as the main influence. Prohibition was an era in the US that started in 1920 and ended in 1933 that banned the production, sale and importation of alcohol. There was still such a huge demand for alcohol in the US that gangs started to pop up and run illegal businesses either creating alcohol or running shops where you could go drink (speak easies). The large organized crime groups led to a lot of violence and corruption (government officials and police getting involved) that eventually led to Prohibition ending. This rise in organized crime was right around the time Hardboiled fiction was starting to be released. These stories were simply adaptations of what was really going on at the time. Anything that readers could relate to was always a big selling point.
Hardboiled stories were first published in pulp magazines. These magazines were cheap and inexpensive because of the materials used to produce them. This made them extremely accessible to the public. Because of this easy access and popularity of these types of magazines new genres of fiction were able to spread quickly. Pulp magazines were also known for having the craziest cover art which is what attracted people to them. They covered many genres with many of them having themes catering to more of an adult crowd. The first magazine credited with releasing hardboiled detective pieces was The Black Mask Magazine. The stories eventually built layers going from stories from tough guy detective stories written by authors such as Carroll John Daly, to the sophisticated, multi-layer stories created by Hammett. Daly, who is credited with being the godfather of the genre created the first real tough guy detective going by the name of Race Williams. Hammett is credited with creating the genre as it is known today, adding layers upon what Daly originally created. A lot of what Hammett used to create this genre of fiction was from personal experience. The other key founder of the genre was Raymond Chandler, he took what Hammett created and added a little more detail to his stories. His stories contained a more physiological element that Hammett did not include. Hammett was more by the book and focused on the case and the mystery more than the characters themselves.
Hammett before he became the writer that most people know him as today was a detective for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. This knowledge of police procedures allowed him to write his mysteries with a sense of realism and grit one could only get from experiencing the real thing. Hammett’s experience in the war also provided him with experience with violence and gritty situations. War makes a man harder as they must go through very harsh conditions protecting the country. Being a detective is why many of Hammett’s stories like The Maltese Falcon were not about the murders themselves but about the events surrounding the murders. In the story the murder was just part of the bigger picture of getting this falcon and figuring out who had it. Murders are always just a part of a crime and Hammett’s experience in the field helped highlight that truth. That is also why Hammett’s biggest ever character Sam Spade was very serious; it reflected himself. Detectives cannot be emotionally invested, they must look at everything straight to figure out what happened. Sam Spade also shares a first name with Hammett whose full name is Samuel Dashiell Hammett.
The biggest indicator that Sam Spade was created to reflect Hammett himself was his tough guy persona. Sam Spade gave off an aura that he could not be outdone. In the story The Maltese Falcon the police department, Effie, and even Gutman and his crew are always telling Spade that one day his actions will catch up to him. He always shrugs those remarks off almost acting as thought he is above the law. Spade never thinks of how people perceive his actions. He only does what he does for himself and his results. That is exactly the type of man Hammett was, he stuck to his ideals, never complained about it and tried to convince others to agree. He did things for himself and never apologized for it. He was a detective, he was used to being around murders and crime. He spent time in prison for his Marxist views but never made public outcries. He accepted his punishment, served his time, and went back to is normal life. Hammett lived a life where he relied on himself and never asked for help, which is probably why Spade did most of work alone without telling anyone major details in The Maltese Falcon. Working alone reflected the mindset Hammett had of being responsible for your own actions. You cannot be a man if you rely on others.
Hammett loving that manly tough guy attitude also reflects his main characters like Sam Spade in the way they view women. In the Maltese Falcon Spade is always fond of the attractive Brigid. However, not once throughout the whole story does he trust her. Obviously, she is shown as a compulsive liar in the story, but I believe those qualities were given to her because of her beauty. I have come to this conclusion based on the characteristics of the one women Hammett allowed Sam Spade to trust, and that is Effie. The defining characteristics on her is that she was very masculine. Hammett describes her through the words of Spade as “boyish” (“Falcon” 33) and says things like “You’re a damn good man, sister” (“Falcon” 33). This association of feminine beauty with lying and untrustworthiness and vice versa only drives home the point of what Hammett thought of being tough and manly meant. This sense of manliness was also part of the environment that Hammett grew up in not his own personal views. Not too many years before Hammett started writing these stories women were just given a right to vote. During the time these stories were written women were slowing getting more workplace rights as well. Hammett was probably still used to the idea of women not being workers but more housewives. He probably thought they could not be trusted in work activities and with critical information. That could be why he choose to give the women with the manly features the trustworthy characteristics one could work with. In modern works of hardboiled fiction, women are now used as the lead detectives in the stories as a way of showing how times have changed. This characteristic is just a sign of the time that Hammett lived in rather than any sexist views he had.
From the research done on Hammett’s background and the history of the genre it seems to me that he was the perfect author to be the face of this style of writing. This gritty style of detective story that is based around a manly/tough main character was meant for Hammett. He was a detective that had experience in war, prison and many situations that made him tough as nails. This was also during a time of political corruption and prohibition adding another layer on an already hardboiled life. Hammett used these experiences as well as the personality he inherited from his era to create a genre that has stood the test of time and created one of the best mystery stories ever.
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