“What’s this bird, this falcon, that’s everybody’s all steamed up about?”

“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-gray 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.”

And so the world was introduced to private detective Sam Spade in Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel The Maltese Falcon. In the ensuing years, Spade has become the archetype for a particular brand of antihero in the mystery/crime genre–the hard-boiled, unsentimental, brooding, and unshakable lone-wolf detective. It was an appealing personality for many “pulp” mystery and crime fiction writers in the 1930s and beyond, evidenced by the Spade-like qualities found in the characterizations of Raymond Chandler’s popular Philip Marlowe and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, among many others.

The Maltese Falcon began life as a serialized story in Black Mask magazine. Black Mask, founded in 1920 by H.L. Mencken, was the preeminent source for crime and detective fiction in the 20s and 30s. Popular authors whose work was initially published in the magazine include Hammett, Chandler, Carroll John Daly (whose Race Williams is considered by many to be the “first” example of the hard-boiled detective character), and Erle Stanley Gardner (who would later find his greatest fame as the creator of Perry Mason)

Sam Spade was not the first detective character created by Hammett; that distinction goes to “The Continental Op,” who first appeared in the pages of Black Mask in 1923. The Op, whose real name is never given, is a shadowy operative of a San Francisco-based detective agency (incidentally, Spade, too, is based in Frisco). In three dozen short stories–several of which were combined to form Hammett’s first two published novels, Red Harvest and The Dain Curse–the Op uncovers the truth in each case through shrewd intellect and manipulation of the suspects. The Continental Op demonstrates a savvy (and sometimes cynical) understanding of human nature that Hammett would revisit in the Sam Spade character seven years later.

But Spade shares little else with his precursor. Spade’s cynicism is marked by a streak of bitterness, an underlying element of misanthropy that colors his perceptions of the world and everyone in it. His motivations are ambiguous, at times; he seems almost entirely lacking in sentiment, and his personal moral code is equally unclear. He is a modern-day Byronic hero, the loner outlaw brimming with masculine appeal. Men want to embody some of his cool machismo, and women (such as famed writer Dorothy Parker) “moon” over his rugged sexuality. With The Maltese Falcon, Hammett inadvertently created a sub-genre of detective stories populated with similarly disaffected male protagonists. But while there were quite a few imitators, there was, in the end, only one Sam Spade.

Hammett’s work, with its distinct characterizations, intriguing plots, and quick-witted dialogue, was quite appealing to Hollywood. Over the years, several of his works were adapted for the big screen. His 1931 novel The Glass Key (reportedly Hammett’s personal favorite of all of his work) was filmed twice, first in 1935 with George Raft in the lead role, and again in 1942, this time with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. His last novel, 1934’s The Thin Man, appeared on the screen later that same year, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy–it eventually gave rise to a series of six films under the “Thin Man” banner, although the subsequent productions featured no input from Hammett. And The Maltese Falcon was adapted for the screen three times, in 1931, 1936, and finally, in its greatest incarnation, in 1941.

Tomorrow: a look back at the first Falcon movie.

2 thoughts on ““What’s this bird, this falcon, that’s everybody’s all steamed up about?”

  1. Well-done piece on the origin of Sam Spade and the importance of the pulp novels on the crime/mystery genre in the 1920s and 1930s. I always preferred Philip Marlowe to Spade. It’s intriguing to read Raymond Chandler’s pulp magazine short stories and see how he wove parts of many of them into his Marlowe novels.

  2. I just finished reading “The Maltese Falcon” and loved it! I also think the 1941 adaptation is great, but I haven’t seen the others. I also really love the book and film of “The Thin Man”. Great post!


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