When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it

Monday, April 1st, 2019

I read Neovictorian’s Sanity a couple months ago and noted that the afterword explicitly mentioned some of his favorite authors, starting with Dashiell Hammett. I had been meaning to read some Hammett for years, so I swung by Amazon and found that The Maltese Falcon was just $4.00 on Kindle.

The story is better known for the Bogart film, which brings up the biggest difference between the book and the movie: the character of Sam Spade looks absolutely nothing like Bogart. Early in the book he’s described as looking “rather pleasantly like a blond satan,” and a bit later, well, I’ll let Hammett describe him:

The smooth thickness of his arms, legs, and body, the sag of his big rounded shoulders, made his body like a bear’s. It was like a shaved bear’s: his chest was hairless. His skin was childishly soft and pink.

That seems more like Stacy Keach as Mike Hammer.

I remember watching bits of the Bogart film as a child, and my dad commenting that the gangsters didn’t seem especially fierce. Years later, a friend of mine who was into hardboiled detective fiction and film noir pointed out that the Code prevented the movie from accurately portraying many of the villains as gay. In the book, Spade’s receptionist describes his visitor as “queer,” which I would’ve taken to simply mean odd, if I hadn’t been forewarned, and later in the story that same character is referred to as a “fairy.” Another member of the gang, generally called “the boy,” is also called a “gunsel,” which can rather ambiguously refer to a criminal with a gun or a catamite. This suggests that their corpulent boss might also have had unusual tastes.

Anyway, Sam Spade drinks a distracting amount — Bacardi in a wine glass, Manhattan in a paper cup, etc.

Something that caught my attention early on is the murder weapon: a Webley-Fosbery Automatic Revolver. Another character has a Luger in a shoulder holster. The gunsel has two automatic pistols in his coat pockets. That’s one of the few times I would recommend (non-automatic) revolvers.

The first few pages of the story didn’t strike me as stereotypically hardboiled, but by the end it had the patter I expected:

“I’m going to send you over. The chances are you’ll get off with life. That means you’ll be out again in twenty years. You’re an angel. I’ll wait for you.” He cleared his throat. “If they hang you I’ll always remember you.”

“But—but, Sam, you can’t! Not after what we’ve been to each other. You can’t—”

“Like hell I can’t.”


When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all around—bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere. Third, I’m a detective and expecting me to run criminals down and then let them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go. It can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done, but it’s not the natural thing.


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.”

It’s a quick, fun read.


  1. L. C. Rees says:

    Much of Hammett’s work is worth reading. As I recall, Hammett’s work dealing with a never named character called “the Continental Op” was more Sam Spade than The Maltese Falcon. One of the novels featuring the Continental Op was set in a thinly disguised Butte, Montana at a time in the early 20C when that mining town had a significant gangster problem. This struck me as amusing since Butte was merely a spot on the map my brothers and I would read and laugh as we drove past. The entire Continental Op corpus is worth reading. Never got around to The Thin Man, though I’ve heard good things about it.

    Hammett’s entire body of work is easy to get through though. After he began a long relationship with the commie succubus Lillian Hellman, her work suddenly gained a quality it had lacked before. Hammett’s suddenly precipitously fell off. Rule of thumb: commie succubi are bad for building up a sizable literary catalog.

    Raymond Chandler’s work is also worth reading. I found him consistently funnier than Hammett.

    Chandler, incidentally, wrote The Simple Art of Murder, a useful critical essay on detective fiction, including some coverage of Hammett.

  2. Neovictorian says:

    The action scenes in Sanity were very much influenced by Hammett’s Red Harvest, the one set in Montana. And Philip Marlowe was a big piece of my hero Cal Adler, as well.

  3. Bruce says:

    According to Hammett ‘gunsel’ wasn’t ambiguous, it refers precisely to a hair-trigger young gay killer who is half batty. But who knows, Hammet might have been fooling.

  4. Bob Sykes says:

    My favorite film. But Mary Astor is badly cast as a sexpot.

  5. Harry Jones says:

    Brigid’s game is to appeal to a man’s protective instinct at least as much as the sex urge. She’s looking for a sucker with white knight fantasies. It’s the quavering voice and the pathetic begging that sells it.

    A lot of those old movies are sly about the censorship. They don’t depict, but sometimes they hint so strongly you can’t possibly miss it. Lorre as Cairo fellating his cane…

    On the other hand, the pornography angle in The Big Sleep is almost completely lost in the film adaptation. You see it mostly by the hole it leaves – various things that don’t make sense otherwise, that the scriptwriters (Faulkner?) didn’t bother to paper over properly.

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