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Hammettisms in The Maltese Falcon

by Vince Emery

(This page provides an expanded version of an essay that appears in the book Discovering The Maltese Falcon and Sam Spade, edited by Richard Layman.)

Scholars of Dashiell Hammett's work have identified elements that appear repeatedly throughout his writings. A useful term to label such a recurring item is a Hammettism.

Some Hammettisms are unique to Hammett. Others are techniques, themes, or motifs that are common to many good novels, but which are especially prominent in Hammett's fiction.

This list provides forty-four Hammettisms that occur in several of Hammett's works and can be found in The Maltese Falcon, plus one Hammettism that appears in Hammett's other novels but is uniquely absent from the story of Sam Spade and the black bird.

  1. Third-person objective point of view — In his essay "Perspective on Points of View" in Writing Mysteries: A Handbook by the Mystery Writers of America, second edition (Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 2002; Sara Grafton, ed.), Loren D. Estleman observed: "The most restricting perspective, third-person objective calls for the writer who writes for the printed page to surrender his greatest advantage: the ability to get inside characters' heads. Shorn of his best mind-reading tools, he must define character entirely through action. … Dashiell Hammett achieved a powerful result by telling The Maltese Falcon completely from outside the skull of his protagonist, detective Sam Spade. It allowed Hammett to keep the reader guessing as to Spade's motives and character until the denouement." The technique enables Hammett to achieve other effects he could not accomplish with a more conventional narrative point of view, a topic requiring discussion too extensive to cover here. Third-person objective is not commonly employed because of the difficulties involved in writing with it. Few writers have been able to sustain it throughout a novel-length work. Hammett was one; Ernest Hemingway was another. Some literary historians have erroneously claimed that Hammett "borrowed" the third-person objective point of view from Hemingway. In fact, Hammett first used the technique in a Western story called "The Man Who Killed Dan Odams" he wrote in 1923, months before Hemingway's stories were available in the United States. After The Maltese Falcon, Hammett continued to develop his use of third-person objective point of view, employing it for short stories, his novel The Glass Key, and a never-completed version of The Thin Man substantially different from the one eventually published. For the published The Thin Man, Hammett resorted to first-person narration, much easier to write.

  2. Vivid, larger-than-life characters — According to some critics, this was Hammett's preeminent strength. He was a master at creating memorable characters who have distinct personalities. The Maltese Falcon includes Sam Spade, undoubtedly the single most successful character Hammett ever created-in fact, one of the most famous characters any writer ever created. Spade's character has become a universal archetype. His imitations in literature, movies, and television number in the thousands. Even so, Spade is only one of many vivid characters in The Maltese Falcon. As in the best work of Charles Dickens or Mark Twain, even minor characters are enjoyable for their distinct personalities, appearances, and speech. They dress differently, move differently, and especially, they speak differently.

  3. Shifting relationships — On his website "A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection," Michael E. Grost describes the complex patterns of negotiations and interactions characteristic of Hammett's work, with stories "designed as an intricate dance, one in which the characters move in and move out in complex and beautiful ways." This quality was not typical in other mystery writers of Hammett's time, who presented characters in relationships that were static and who interested readers more by the cleverness of the mystery puzzles they unveiled.

  4. A whodunit puzzle — Most of Hammett's fiction pieces are classical mysteries built around a formal whodunit puzzle. This is true of The Maltese Falcon, even though the existence of the puzzle (Who killed Miles Archer?) is hidden from the reader throughout most of the novel. Hammett also used this hide-the-puzzle technique in short stories: "Crooked Souls" (also known as "The Gatewood Caper") appears to be the case history of a kidnapping, but at its end the detective-narrator reveals that he first suspected the perpetrator halfway through the story; "The Gutting of Couffignal" appears to be a straight action yarn with no mystery at all until its conclusion surprises the reader by revealing that the story was in actuality a formal whodunit all along.

  5. A plot that foils romantic conventions — Grost summarizes: "Hammett gets his major effects through his plotting. It is the plot that conveys the ever-growing complexity of the relationships among his principals, bizarre relationships that subvert all our notions of romantic bliss."

  6. Struggles for dominance — Much of Hammett's writing includes characters who try to psychologically dominate others. He shapes the resulting struggles in ways that add character revelation, conflict, and color. Sam Spade attempts to psychologically dominate every other character in almost every encounter. Lieutenant Dundy dominates Tom Polhaus and attempts to dominate Spade.

  7. A circular fable — Hammett wrote several stories in which a character moves through dramatic events only to return to a life similar to that at the story's beginning. In The Maltese Falcon, Spade goes through danger, romance, and the promise of riches only to return to the same job he had and the same reluctant relationship with Iva Archer. Similarly, in Chapter 7, when Spade tells the Flitcraft parable he provides a circular fable in miniature.

  8. Fresh scenes — In a famous essay entitled "The Simple Art of Murder," Raymond Chandler wrote that Hammett's writing "was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before." Even after being imitated again and again by hundreds of writers, many of the scenes in The Maltese Falcon are so well-constructed that they still pack enough punch to be unforgettable.

  9. Flavorful naturalistic dialog — Conversations from The Maltese Falcon work so smoothly they were dropped verbatim from Hammett's novel into the Humphrey Bogart movie's script. Hammett gave each character a different way of speaking-each with his or her own vocabulary, rhythm, and sentence structure. He kept his dialog crisp, made it sound like real people talking and not written prose, and made each conversation move the plot forward. Only the best writers accomplish all these tasks simultaneously. Hammett's ability to sustain many distinct voices—one for his narration, several others for his characters—is at its best in The Maltese Falcon.

  10. Tradecraft — One reason Hammett's stories fascinate readers is that he lets readers see the tricks of the detective trade. Examples in The Maltese Falcon include remembering a conversation almost verbatim for later dictation, shaking a tail, and searching a room.

  11. Detective-style descriptions of people — In his essay "The Decline and Fall of the Detective Story," Somerset Maugham pointed out that "Hammett and Raymond Chandler specify the appearance of their characters and the clothes they wear, though briefly, as exactly as do the police when they send to the papers a description of a wanted man." Throughout his works, Hammett describes people as a detective would: "Mr. Joel Cairo was a small-boned dark man of medium height. His hair was black and smooth and very glossy. His features were Levantine. A square-cut ruby, its sides paralleled by four baguette diamonds [terminology that reflects Hammett's experience working for a jeweler], gleamed against the deep green of his cravat. His black coat, cut tight to narrow shoulders, flared a little over slightly plump hips. His trousers fitted his round legs more snugly than was the current fashion. The uppers of his patent-leather shoes were hidden by fawn spats. He held a black derby hat in a chamois-gloved hand and came towards Spade with short, mincing, bobbing steps. The fragrance of chypre came with him." A witness could give that description to a missing persons detail: height, hair color, figure, clothing, how the person moves, even his perfume. Note how Hammett starts at the top of his subject's head and works his way down to the feet and hands. Hammett's descriptions of men's outfits are usually more meticulous than his descriptions of women's clothing.

  12. Superspecificity — Author William Gibson invented this term. It refers to passages in which Hammett describes objects or events using extreme detail to draw us deeper into a scene. In an interview, Gibson described his excitement when he realized what Hammett was doing with superspecificity: "I remember being very excited about how he [Hammett] had pushed all this ordinary stuff until it was different-like American naturalism but cranked up very intense, almost surreal." One of the best-known examples of superspecificity in all of Hammett's writing occurs in Chapter 1: the sounds, sights, and smells in Spade's office as Brigid and Spade silently battle, both stalling to provoke the other to talk first. Raymond Chandler liked those three paragraphs so much that he imitated them in "Trouble Is My Business." The reader will find several additional instances of superspecificity in The Maltese Falcon.

  13. Biting humor — As usual, Hammett's dry wit is present, often so understated that many readers miss it.

  14. Reworked elements from his own earlier works — Hammett often refined and improved characters, situations, clues, and plot ideas that he had used before. Those who have read much of his fiction can identify his recyclings and trace them as they evolve over his career.

  15. A group standoff — Hammett frequently included tense scenes of an extended standoff between a group of diverse characters, such as the one in Spade's apartment near the end of the book. Many of these encounters are among people trapped in a confined space, wringing dramatic tension out of Hammett's own claustrophobia.

  16. Detective is surprised — Sherlock Holmes was famed as being omniscient and rarely surprised. Philo Vance and most other fictional detectives of the nineteen-twenties were similarly unflappable. Hammett countered this convention by ensuring that in every one of his stories that feature a detective, the detective is wrong or surprised at least once. This occurs in Chapter 5 of The Maltese Falcon, when Joel Cairo wakes up and says he really will pay Spade $5,000. Hammett explicitly describes Spade as genuinely surprised - one of the rare times in the book when the author tells us how a character feels. In Chapter 14, Spade is caught by surprise again when the fat man drugs him.

  17. Detective is beaten — Hammett detectives are usually beaten up at least once. In Chapter 14, Spade suffers a kick in the head from Wilmer.

  18. Detective is tempted — Traditional detectives were morally one-dimensional, so obviously incorruptible that an offer of a bribe would be silly. Hammett was very interested in the temptation of the detective by power, money, physical threats, and sex.

  19. Detective writes note on back of envelope — Almost all of Hammett's detectives take notes with a pencil on the back of an envelope. In Chapter XVI, "Spade copied the number on the back of an envelope." This is unusual for Hammett in that a pencil is not mentioned. I mentioned this recurring action to Joe Gores, an author and a former detective himself. I was puzzled about why Hammett repeated this action. Gores explained that detectives working for his firm kept envelopes for most of the jobs they worked. Expense receipts and other scraps of paper related to a job could be stored in that job's envelope, which was also a convenient place to scribble quick notes about the job. So this seemingly whimsical action is a touchstone to the day-to-day reality of a working detective.

  20. Extra clues not explicitly pointed out — According to a former policeman, Hammett often adds extra clues that an experienced investigator would recognize but that Hammett does not mention in his puzzle's concluding explanation. The Maltese Falcon presents two such clues. 1) A professional killer supposedly leaves his gun at the crime scene. A professional hitman does not casually abandon a traceable gun at a murder site; therefore all detectives on the case should suspect from the start that a professional did not commit this murder and that someone might be trying to frame the professional. 2) The second implied clue is one of Hammett's favorites, which he used before in the short stories "Who Killed Bob Teal?" and "The Gutting of Couffignal": a gunpowder burn on the coat. As soon as Spade hears about the powder burn, he knows the gun was fired at short range, implying that the killer was someone the victim recognized and trusted enough to approach closely. It is surprising that Spade does not mention the powder burn at the denouement.

  21. Main character is a loner.

  22. Main character is working class — Before Hammett, detectives were rich or at least upper class. Hammett had been a real detective; he knew better. Real detectives did hard work for low pay. They were not aristocratic. Sam Spade was a nail in the coffin of the tuxedo-clad detective.

  23. Main character does not drive — Hammett had many fears. One was fear of driving. The result is that few of Hammett's central characters drive. Spade travels in taxis and streetcars. To go to Burlingame, instead of driving himself, Spade rents a car with a driver.

  24. Main character takes pride in competence in his job — Most of Hammett's protagonists-whether they are detectives, criminals, or in the case of his first story, a barber-pride themselves on doing their jobs well.

  25. Main character makes his own moral rules — The main character in Hammett's first detective stories and the main characters in Hammett's strongest subsequent fiction share an awareness that was observed by author James Sallis: "…much of their power derived from a recognition that there is no moral order save that which a man creates for himself." This individualistic ethic clashes with Hammett's upbringing in the Roman Catholic Church, which promotes institutionalized morality by claiming that valid moral principles can come only from the teachings of its hierarchy. Hammett's most powerful works show a man dealing with the troubles of life by making his own definitions of what is right and wrong, by adhering—no matter how much pain it costs—to a moral code that he defines for himself. He renders his own judgment. There is no other.

  26. A fat man — Hammett was extremely thin all his life. Fat men must have fascinated them, because he featured many in his stories. Casper Gutman is Hammett's most famous fat character.

  27. A stenographer — If Hammett had not dropped out of the Munson School for Secretaries, he could have become a stenographic reporter. He puts a stenographer in most of his novels and some of his short stories. One makes an appearance here in the district attorney's office.

  28. Untrustworthy women — Brigid O'Shaughnessy, Eva Archer, and Rhea Gutman.

  29. Greeks — Three appear in The Maltese Falcon.

  30. Russians — Only one appears in the novel, but he holds the falcon.

  31. A movie theater and/or a movie theater owner — In chapter 12, Spade finds that Iva Archer went to a movie theater on Powell Street. In chapter 16, he takes on a movie theater owner as a new client.

  32. No children — Surprisingly for a man who had two daughters and who loved children all his life, Hammett wrote stories that take place in a world without children. Although The Maltese Falcon has two seeming exceptions, they are actually adults. Gutman's so-called daughter Rhea is post-pubescent. Although described as a "boy," Wilmer Cook is in his twenties.

  33. Names based on people Hammett knew — Polhaus was a boyhood chum. Hammett's own first name was Sam.

  34. Hard drinking — Even though he wrote during Prohibition, few Hammett characters were teetotalers. For better or worse,he popularized what is now a cliché: the hard-drinking detective.

  35. Celebrated Criminal Cases of America by Thomas Duke — This 1910 book appears twice in The Maltese Falcon. It is excerpted in The Thin Man and is referenced again in one of Hammett's nonfiction pieces.

  36. Slang — Hammett loved colorful slang all his life, and used it to spice his writing. Note that in The Maltese Falcon his narration does not use slang, only the characters' spoken dialogs. To sharpen distinctions between the characters' personalities, each character's lines employ slang in a different way.

  37. The word "dingus" — Hammett used the double entendre "dingus" in many of his pieces. In The Maltese Falcon, Spade calls the bird "this dingus" at the end of Chapter 16. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1994) explains that in Hammett's day, "dingus" meant "thing," "penis," or "the rump."

  38. The phrase "all right" — Hammett included this phrase in most of his stories and all of his novels. These words are certainly not unique to Hammett, but few if any writers use the phrase as frequently as Hammett did.

  39. A conspiracy — Hammett put many conspiracies in his stories. In his mysteries especially, the main characters often find other characters colluding to hatch secret schemes—a change from Hammett's mystery-writing counterparts, who usually wrote stories in which crimes were committed by one lone criminal.

  40. Corruption and breakdown of social institutions.

  41. Descriptions of eyes — Hammett used frequent descriptions of eyes to reveal character and mood.

  42. Asyndetons, lists without a connective before the final item, such as "Every drawer, cupboard, cubbyhole, box, bag, trunk-locked or unlocked-was opened…" Most writers would have written "bag, and trunk." Hammett often deletes the "and."

  43. A numbered list — Hammett was an advertising writer. Most classes and books that teach the techniques of writing advertisements instruct writers to add coherence and momentum to unstructured points by presenting them as a sequence of numbered items, such has been done with this list. Hammett included several numbered lists in his fiction. Perhaps the most well-known occurs in The Maltese Falcon, when Spade rattles off a numbered list during the most intense scene, giving Brigid seven reasons he cannot trust her. The astute reader will find other numbered lists in the novel as well.

  44. Set in a place where Hammett lived — Not only did Hammett live in San Francisco, but also in the cities where the Flitcraft story takes place.

  45. A lunger — Finally, the exception-one Hammettism not present in The Maltese Falcon. Hammett nearly died of tuberculosis. His novels usually include a thin man who is a "lunger," one who suffers from Hammett's own lung disease: Dan Rolff in Red Harvest, Owen Fitzstephan (clearly a fictional version of Hammett himself) in The Dain Curse, Ned Beaumont in The Glass Key, Clyde Wynant - the title character - in The Thin Man. But no one has tuberculosis in The Maltese Falcon. (A case can be made that Captain Jacobi represents a lunger, but that is not realistic. Jacobi is thin, and he coughs up blood like a tuberculosis victim, but in Jacobi's case the blood comes not from disease but from six bullets in his chest.)

All the elements cataloged above recur in Hammett's fiction with a frequency sufficient to preclude argument as to their inclusion by accident or random chance.

There can be no doubt that some Hammettisms, such as the insertion of the word "dingus," were injected by the author deliberately. Others may have been included unconsciously, providing the reader with clues about the unseen forces that shaped Hammett's work. Whether selected consciously or reused unconsciously, these elements can help the reader comprehend Hammett's creative process. They also help scholars understand how his best work transcended the limits of genre fiction, and provide insight into why The Maltese Falcon and other works by Dashiell Hammett continue to provide fertile fields for general readers and scholars alike.

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