A bird that keeps soaring

Tom Nolan is the author of "Ross Macdonald: A Biography."

People have been talking in one way or another about the black bird -- ex-detective Dashiell Hammett's third and classic novel, "The Maltese Falcon" -- ever since its original serial publication in Black Mask magazine in 1929. As a 1930 Knopf hardcover, the book was an immediate bestseller, going through seven printings that year.

The "Falcon," a masterpiece of American hard-boiled writing, revolutionized the detective novel, and its merit as literature was seen from the first by critics. Hammett was compared favorably in 1930 to Ernest Hemingway ("The writing is better than Hemingway; since it conceals not softness but hardness") and rumored to be a contender for the Nobel Prize. Ten years after the book's first vogue, people began talking about "The Maltese Falcon" all over again, when John Huston made his directorial debut with a 1941 movie. It too was a commercial and critical hit -- released the same year and judged as good as "Citizen Kane" -- and was eventually named one of the AFI's greatest films of all time.

So it's proved impossible for enthusiasts not to talk about the black bird, just as it's been impossible to stop reading Hammett's book or watching Huston's movie. On page and on screen, "The Maltese Falcon" is the hard-boiled "Hamlet": the apotheosis of a genre and a work that contains enough nuances to reward a lifetime of scrutiny.

Now fans of the "Falcon" have copious food for talk in a formidable new reference tool, "Dashiell Hammett's 'The Maltese Falcon' " edited by noted Hammett scholar and biographer Richard Layman, assisted by George Parker Anderson. Amply and inventively illustrated, the work is divided into sections on Hammett's pre-writing life; his pre-"Falcon" prose; the writing of "The Maltese Falcon," its publication and reception; a chapter of late 20th century critical analyses; and a section on film and other adaptations of the book (including a popular radio series, "The Adventures of Sam Spade," 50-year-old reruns of which can be heard in Los Angeles at 9 p.m. Mondays on KNX-AM).

This oversized volume holds a wealth of source material. Its hundreds of entries -- including letters, book reviews, contracts, photographs, clippings, jacket art, advertisements, memos -- make up a sort of participatory biography, in which a reader connects the dots for pictures of both the "Falcon's" creation and its creator's life history.

One thing some of these items may do is put to rest the still-encountered notion that Hammett was a literary primitive, a noble savage of American letters. Although he left school at 14 to help support his family, he was widely read and highly self-educated. Once he'd learned the writing trade by doing dozens of pulp-magazine short stories, his artistic aims and aspirations were as high as those of any author of his time. "I'm one of the few -- if there are any more -- people moderately literate who take the detective story seriously," he wrote Blanche Knopf in 1928. When Hammett conceived "The Maltese Falcon," he told James Thurber that one of his models was Henry James' "The Wings of the Dove."

Yet the pared-down, hard-boiled style in which he wrote was a world (or a world war) away from James'. Hammett honed his craft in the pages of Black Mask, the premier crime-story pulp, whose editor, Joseph "Cap" Shaw, instilled in his writers the dictum that every word counts in telling and advancing a story. Shaw seems to have been a kind of editorial saint: inspiring his contributors to the best work they were capable of, then praising and promoting it to the hilt.

Through judicious excerpts, Layman's volume demonstrates how Hammett grew from a brilliant raw talent into the artist who wrote "The Maltese Falcon." Passages from pulp stories in which Hammett worked out early versions of sequences later perfected in the novel are juxtaposed with the "Falcon" scenes they foreshadow.

"He was serious about his writing," Layman notes of Hammett (in a pocket biography of the author, first printed in the Layman-edited volume of his "Selected Letters"), "but he was also an opportunist -- a man born poor who had lived through illness and who now wanted to wring all the benefits he could from success. Hammett was a literary man, but he was too much of a pragmatist to devote himself to literature."

Economic reality forced that pragmatism. As shown by paperwork photographically reproduced here, Hammett's first three-book contract with Knopf made no provision for a cash advance. "Red Harvest," "The Dain Curse" and "The Maltese Falcon" (successes all) were written essentially on spec. "If you use 'The Falcon,' " Hammett wrote his editor in 1929, "will you go a little easy on the editing?"

An ex-Pinkerton operative, Hammett soon found a lucrative way to approach literary labor: as a lavishly paid Hollywood writer. By late 1930, Hammett was in L.A. for the first of several stays. (Some readers may be surprised to learn here of the author's strong connection to Los Angeles, where he first met longtime companion Lillian Hellman and where he bought a house, in Santa Monica, for the wife and two daughters he continued to support.)

One of the gems in this documentary volume is the chapter on the making of Huston's 1941 film from co-star Mary Astor's autobiography: "He'd had the wit to keep Hammett's book intact," she writes. "His shooting script was a precise map of what went on. Every shot, camera move, entrance, exit was down on paper, leaving nothing to chance, inspiration or invention. Nobody improvised their way through this one!" As Hammett made every word count, so Huston put each frame of film to work. And his strict adherence to the novel even extended to physical gestures and facial expressions. When you read the book today, you can see the movie simultaneously in your mind's eye.

There are too many other highlights in this marvelous reference work to list, let alone describe. A few more include Vince Emery's crisp piece showing how Hammett's training as an advertising writer and a private detective influenced his prose style, a fine brief history of Black Mask magazine by William F. Nolan (no relation) and long passages from nonfiction works relating to the Knights of Malta and their dealings with Charles V (pretty rough going, some of them, but fascinating as demonstrations of the historical foundation underpinning Hammett's urban romance).

And there are several critical essays offering imaginative explications of Hammett's text -- "selected," the editor hastens to warn, "to provide an indication of the approaches scholars have taken toward Hammett's work, not as recommendations about how to read the novel."

Some of these seem to border on parody. Paul P. Abrahams' 1995 essay contends: "A close reading of the novel in the context of contemporary events shows that the author was working out the controversial 'lessons' of World War I, as they applied to the politics of peace and disarmament of the 1920s.... Wilmer represents American finance capitalism, headquartered in New York.... Spade's partner Archer, symbolizing the American Expeditionary Force President Wilson sent to Europe in 1917, naively walks into a trap and is murdered."

In "Tulip," a fragment of an unfinished post-World War II novel that may have been the last thing he tried to write, Hammett had an old novelist character called Pop, based on himself, say: "If you're careful enough in not committing yourself you can persuade different readers to see all sorts of different meanings in what you have written, since in the end almost anything can be symbolic of anything else, and I've read a lot of stuff of that sort and liked it, but it's not my way of writing and there's no use pretending it is."

Sweep away the pretension, discard the mythology, solve the biographical mysteries, cut the chatter -- and what you still have is what you had to begin with: an incandescent American novel, as exciting to read today as it was nearly three-quarters of a century ago, now superbly documented and appreciated by this unsurpassed reference tribute. *

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
72°