Here There Be Maltese Falcon Spoilers…

We’re in Palm Beach at the moment, where Cricket’s dad has a fantastic house – a sprawling white pile with handsome grounds that sweep down to the water, a view consisting exclusively of other houses of the affluent, and a beautiful pool. I’ll be hugely disappointed if I don’t witness at least one cocaine baron cigarette boat-based firefight from the sunbathing platform this week.


Since this is supposed to be a reading holiday, we loaded up the truck with NoseKote and puggles and whatnot, and I ambitiously packed the following books, either friend-recommended or long on my To Read list:

  1. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha Christie

  2. The Maltese Flacon, Dashiel Hammett

  3. The First Deadly Sin, Lawrence Sanders

  4. The Innocent, Harlan Coben

  5. Paranoia, Joe Finder

  6. The Closers, Michael Connelly

  7. The Ruins, Scott Smith

  8. Bad Blood, Linda Fairstein

  9. The Corpse in the Koryo, James Church

  10. The Broken Shore, Peter Temple

  11. The Collaborator of Bethlehem, Matt Benyon Rees

  12. The Exception, Christian Jungerson

Alas, between recovering from the drive down and having to write Christmas food pieces for Oprah and for Martha, I’ve only managed to polish off the first two on the list.

When she threw that notorious final twist into The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Christie created one of the most controversial detective stories ever, a novel so divisive that she was almost booted out of the Detection Club for her flimflammery (she only remained a member thanks to the intercession of Dorothy Sayers). It was the first time in a long while that I’d read a traditional (well, genre criteria-satisfyingly “traditional”) English murder mystery; for me, the take-home message was that, despite Christie’s epic final switcheroo, I have outgrown the cozy.

That sort of background – the manor house, the vicarage, the church fête etc etc – fills me with horror, largely because it brings back memories of my childhood (I went to prep school in Sussex in an old Georgian mansion, then to a public school wedged between Stratton-on-the-Fosse and Midsomer Norton, deep in the Somerset countryside) but also because it’s as unreal to me as anything out of Tolkein. I’ve now been in the murder business for almost 20 years, and there is literally nothing in the typical murder-in-the-vicarage English detective novel that resembles the truth of a killing in the world we live in. Once the initial quick blanching, shriek or swoon is over, the death has no resonance in that tiny little world. And, in a world where even death can produce no emotion, I find nothing there on which I can gain purchase.

Joss Whedon, creator most famously of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, said something to the effect that “It’s not about the vampires, it’s about the emotions”, and I think he’s one hundred percent right. For me, the English country house murder mystery fails because it is an intellectual exercise, a crossword puzzle, almost literally bloodless fiction, a kind of word sudoku where the stakes are nominally raised by the feeble invocation of a death.

Of course, that is its primal appeal to many, and the primal appeal of probably the entire mystery/thriller genre: that an individual can impose balance and order on a world out of control. But I find the disorder that murder creates in classic English detective fiction to be so minimal that its resolution brings little satisfaction.

Hammett published The Maltese Falcon in 1929, a couple of years after Christie’s Ackroyd, but an ocean and a continent away. What a difference an ocean and a continent make! In Falcon, we find not a tight, immaculate world, but a sprawling modern city, the boundaries of which are repeatedly punctured – ships come in from the Orient, Spade hops into a car and drives to Burlingame. Suddenly, the world is real.

What surprised me with rereading the book was how it’s almost entirely constructed out of dialogue. Hammett falters a bit when he hits the descriptions, and uses all too many adverbs and alternate verbs for “he said” (poor, meaty cop Tom Polhaus does nothing but “grumble” this or that), but the spoken language crackles ferociously – one of the strengths of John Huston’s superb screenplay for the film was that he relied on Hammett’s original dialogue.

Again, in the hard-boiled novel, murder is an incident without true emotional impact – the death of Spade’s partner is nothing more than an opportunity for exalted ethical behaviour – but now the murder occurs in a huge, complex world, teeming with amoral schemers. Against this degraded backdrop, Spade’s apparent moral ambiguity is enough to make him a saint.

For me, the best part of the book is the emotional gut punch at the end, when Sam lets Brigid O’Shaughnessy know where his allegiances lie. To add to Michael Koryta’s noir screenplay thread, here’s a snippet from Huston’s script, v. close to Hammett’s original:

Sam Spade: Well, if you get a good break, you’ll be out of Tehachapi in twenty years and you can come back to me then. I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck.

Brigid O’Shaughnessy: You’re not–

Sam Spade: Yes, angel, I’m going to send you over. But chances are, you’ll get off with life. That means, if you’re a good girl, you’ll be out in twenty years. I’ll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I’ll always remember you.

Spade sacrifices a woman he quite possibly loved (to the extent that a hard-boiled shamus is capable of love) in the name of principle, avenging the death of a partner whom he despised (and with whose wife he was sleeping). It’s a towering, cathartic moment, a moment driven emotionally as much by Brigid’s astonished horror as by the implacability of Spade’s decision. Spade sheds the cloak of moral ambiguity to reveal himself to be a pure, scrupulously ethical man in a staggeringly corrupt world, a world where it’s no longer clear that ethics even matter.

A real world.

Spade and Brigid O’Shaugnessy (Bogart and Mary Astor)