On Re-Reading the Maltese Falcon

By Abrahams, Paul P. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

On Re-Reading the Maltese Falcon


Abrahams, Paul P., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Dashiell Hammett is commonly known by his third and most famous novel, The Maltese Falcon, uniquely featuring the detective hero, Sam Spade. A 1941 film version of the book, which had been published in 1929, was a box-office hit starring Humphrey Bogart. This partly accounts for the recognition Hammett and Spade continue to enjoy, but we measure the endurance of the author and his fictional creation by more than popularity, or the devotion of the Bogart cult. Together they established the fictional detective as a fully fledged social observer and critic. 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. To accomplish this, Hammett, an anarchist and an anti-fascist, created a character to mock bourgeois pretensions of law, order, and progress, which inspired the rhetoric of international relations during that decade.

How much did these motives account for Spade's original qualities and for his subsequent influence? To begin to answer these questions and to understand the vehicle Hammett fashioned for American detective fiction, a brief review of American politics and diplomacy during the 1920s and an exploration of their relation to certain features of political and literary thought is required.

Beginning in 1917, with the revelation of the secret European diplomacy that had preceded World War I, a stream of published documents and high-level memoirs refuted official versions of the war's origins and purposes (Fay 1-49 passim). For the horrendous expenditure of the war, which governments had justified in terms of 'freedom,' 'democracy,' and 'civilization,' society obtained little but death and disorder, it seemed. As facts demolished the idealistic picture painted by Allied wartime propaganda, Armistice Day ceremonies became solemn observations of needless sacrifices made to the failed god of nationalism. The doctrine of German war guilt enshrined in the Treaty of Versailles (1919) was also a casualty of revision, indicating the responsibility of Britain and France, states that had benefited from the Treaty's harsh peace terms to make appropriate adjustments in their relations with Germany.

This British, French, and German diplomats cautiously attempted with the Locarno Treaty (1925), which provided for the admission of Germany to the League of Nations, thus ending German isolation. The Treaty signaled the end of French predominance in Europe, giving Britain, France's ally, decisive influence over the continental balance of power. But it neither significantly altered the terms of the Treaty of Versailles nor eliminated Allied fears of German revanchism. To insure against this eventuality, the French foreign minister Aristide Briand approached the American government with a non-aggression alliance in April 1927, the anniversary of the American declaration of war for the defense of France and Great Britain in World War I. Evading this politically risky entanglement, the Republicans in Washington offered the internationally minded a harmless revised version that appealed to the sovereign states of the world to take a rhetorical stand against aggression. This was known as the Kellogg-Briand Pact, a so-called Peace Pact history texts often describe as one of the diplomatic triumphs of President Calvin Coolidge's administration.

For Dashiell Hammett, working out his new novel based on the subject, glossing over realpolitik maneuvering with high sounding rhetoric was a characteristically insincere operation of the international state system. In fact, Britain and France together, contrary to disarmament agreements, planned to revise the standards of general military and naval forces in their favor. The French agreed the Admiralty could abandon the naval limitations of the Washington Conference (1922) pertaining to light cruisers.(1) In turn, the British government would approve a larger effective French army than allowed by the Treaty of Versailles. …

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