The Flitcraft Parable
by Christopher Routledge
In the early 1990s the hippest, palest young graduate students were arguing over arcane areas of literary theory, but for me it was Raymond Chandler, the well-known ‘slumming angel’ of twentieth century American letters. I was Feste in a room full of Malvolios and I quickly became accustomed to the knowing incline of the head that preceded the statement ‘Raymond Chandler! Ah yes, I’m awfully fond of The Maltese Falcon.’ It’s an easy mistake to make of course. The face of Humphrey Bogart ties together Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1930) and Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939), which were made into films by John Huston and Howard Hawks in 1941 and 1946 respectively. Although Hammett was six years his junior, Chandler’s career as a writer began at around the same time as Hammett’s was ending. While he credited Hammett with developing a new, more realistic kind of mystery writing, Chandler’s emphasis on style is often taken as a sign of his literary superiority. It is true that Chandler was a more ambitious writer in terms of character development, linguistic dexterity, and in his aspirations for the mystery story, but Hammett suffers unjustly in the comparison. In his tough detectives, including the nameless ‘Continental Op.’, Hammett captured the cynical spirit of 1920s America, in the process creating a particularly American detective hero.
Of Hammett’s five novels, The Maltese Falcon is probably the best known, though The Thin Man (1934) made him the most money. It first appeared in serialised form in 1929 in the pulp magazine Black Mask, where Hammett, along with a number of other writers under editor Joseph Shaw, had helped invent and then refine the hard-boiled detective novel. While Chandler’s novels were published first by mainstream publishers, Hammett was writing for a different audience. As a result The Maltese Falcon isn’t the kind of book that wanders much from its primary purpose. Hammett’s prose moves along swiftly and directly, just as his readers in Black Mask wanted. Detective Sam Spade is introduced at the beginning of the book in a single paragraph:
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.
(The Maltese Falcon, chapter 1, ‘Spade and Archer’)
The description is economical and to the point: as we later learn, Spade is a man for whom judgement is absolute and ruthlessly applied, like the devil himself.
Physical appearances seem to tell us all we need to know about the other characters in the novel too: fat man Gutman, ‘Levantine’ Joel Cairo and beautiful, cool Brigid O’Shaughnessy. But Hammett’s novel is far more interesting than that. Just as the black bird of the novel’s title is not what it seems, so the deceitfulness of each of these characters leaves their surface identities fluid and unfixed. In the case of Gutman, his wobbling body is literally unstable. Only Spade, with his focus and determination, manages to sustain some sense of personal consistency, though at times it appears otherwise. Here Gutman and Spade meet for the first time and circle round one another, Gutman switching and changing his approach as he tries to bring the detective over to his cause:
‘We begin well, sir,’ the fat man purred, turning with a proffered glass in his hand. ‘I distrust a man that says when. If he’s got to be careful not to drink too much it’s because he’s not to be trusted when he does.’
Spade took the glass and, smiling, made the beginning of a
bow over it.
The fat man raised his glass and held it against a window’s light. He nodded approvingly and the bubbles running up in it. He said: ‘Well, sir, here’s to plain speaking and clear understanding.’They drank and lowered their glasses.
The fat man looked shrewdly at Spade and asked: ‘You’re a
Spade shook his head. ‘I like to talk.’
‘Better and better!’ the fat man exclaimed. ‘I distrust a close-
mouthed man. He generally picks the wrong time to talk and says the wrong things…’
(The Maltese Falcon, chapter 11, ‘The Fat Man’)
Later, in a twist made famous by Mary Astor and Humphrey Bogart in the film of the novel, Brigid O’Shaughnessy misjudges Spade and expects him to conceal her crimes, which he will not do.
Despite his clear and fast-paced plotting Hammett was always interested in exploring real motivation and troubling moral questions. This is nowhere more clear than in the so-called ‘Flitcraft parable’, one of the most remarkable digressions in any detective novel. Through it Hammett lays down a vision of American life that reveals his radical politics and takes a pessimistic view of how much stomach people might have for principled and sustained resistance, even when issues affect their own lives. Hammett’s own beliefs led to him being jailed when he refused to co-operate with the American government’s investigation into Communism; he was convicted of contempt of court in 1953. The story of Flitcraft, which Spade tells to Brigid O’Shaughnessy, is a parable of modern life. In literary terms it takes the idea of the Modernist epiphany and exposes it as a fleeting moment with no lasting effect.
Flitcraft was a real-estate agent in Tacoma, Washington. He had a comfortable life: a wife, children, a good income, money in the bank, regular four-o’clock golfing outings. Then one day he disappeared. He just walked out of his office and never came back. As Spade puts it: ‘He went like that … like a fist when you open your hand.’ What had happened that day in Tacoma was simple. On his way to get lunch Flitcraft narrowly avoided being killed by a beam falling from a nearby unfinished building. Having lived a life of order and responsibility he now realised that none of it mattered and that life could end at any moment. He adjusted to his new knowledge by leaving that afternoon.
What is interesting about the Flitcraft parable is not the moment of change but the outcome. Flitcraft adjusts to his moment of revelation and forgets about it. When Spade catches up with him five years later Flitcraft is living under the name of Charles Pierce, arguably a reference to Charles Sanders Peirce, the pragmatic philosopher and American pioneer of semiotics. He is comfortable and prosperous, living in a suburb of Spokane, Washington, with a new job and a new wife and a new baby son. In just a few years Flitcraft had gone back to the life he had before, but in a different town, with a different job and a different family. The parable ends: ‘He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.’
This idea lies at the heart of Hammett’s vision and is what distinguishes the hard-boiled detective from those around him. While Flitcraft moves through life adjusting to events and taking the easy line, beyond a certain point Spade refuses to go along with things. At the end of the novel he tells Brigid ‘I won’t play the sap for you’ and demonstrates to her that unlike Flitcraft he is in control. Despite appearing corruptible, he tells her: ‘Don’t be too sure I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be. That kind of reputation might be good business – bringing in high-priced jobs and making it easier to deal with the enemy.’
Dashiell Hammett is usually placed at the head of a hard-boiled triumvirate – Hammett, Chandler, Cain – who dominated American crime fiction in the mid-twentieth century. Hammett was a veteran of both world wars, a former advertising copywriter, and Pinkerton detective. Almost half a century after his death he is regarded as one of the finest detective story writers of all time, but like Spade, Hammett is much better than even this reputation might suggest. The Maltese Falcon was not Hammett’s own favourite, but it is his masterpiece. The economy of the language and the pace of the storytelling belie its moral and philosophical complexities. It is a novel of survival and resistance as well the story of a small final victory over the corrupt moral pragmatism of the modern world. Hammett died in 1961 having spent the last thirty years of his life battling tuberculosis, the U.S. government, and struggling to write anything at all.
By Christopher Routledge