Discovering The Maltese Falcon and the Man Who Wrote It
Richard Layman, Dashiell Hammett scholar and author
Tuesday, September 21, 7:00 pm, Central Library Auditorium
We are honored to welcome this year’s keynote speaker for On The Same Page, Dr. Richard Layman. Please join us for a special evening sharing his insights into our author and The Maltese Falcon. In anticipation of his presentation, Dr. Layman was willing to indulge On The Same Page in a short interview. Because we want to know!
OTSP asks: Do you remember the first time you read The Maltese Falcon? Were you already a Hammett fan at the time?
I came to The Maltese Falcon late. I was a graduate student at the University of South Carolina taking a course in 20th century literature taught by the formidable Matthew J. Bruccoli, who later became my business partner and friend, but then he was to me a demanding—and notably grumpy–professor. So I had the great advantage of coming to the novel not as a mystery, but as a great work of literature. That, I think is how it ought to be regarded. As to the fan part of your question, Hammett has inspired a cult following, very nice people, many of whom are friends of mine, who are fans. Though I have a deep appreciation of The Maltese Falcon and the rest of Hammett’s works as well, and though I have spent some 40 years reading and enjoying his works, I resist being categorized as a fan. Without, I hope, being dull on the subject, I take it more seriously than fandom suggests. But that doesn’t mean the book and discussion of it can’t be fun.
OTSP asks: You know Hammett’s works so well. Do you find yourself ever “falling into character” or speaking to yourself in the author’s voice? Do you have Dashiell Hammett or Sam Spade moments in your own life?
Particularly in San Francisco a lot of Hammett fans like to dress up like Sam Spade and act out as private detectives. Without being critical of them, I feel a little silly in a trench coat and a fedora. Yet a mark of good literature, seems to me, is that it resonates with the reader’s thoughts, experience, and, maybe aspirations. I can easily identify every character in the book with people I know—as I suspect most readers can. I like to think of myself as being Sam Spade-like—in many but not all respects. Hammett himself, describing Sam Spade, called him “a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would have liked to be and what quite a few of them in their cockier moments thought they approached. . . . He wants to be a hard and shifty fellow able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander, or client.” Sure I’d like to be a version of that Sam Spade.
I think Hammett did, too. The description of Spade in the first paragraph is a precise description of Hammett’s face when he wrote the novel, for example, but when he got to body type, he gave Spade his height, but added a few pounds of bulk to his body to make Spade more imposing. Hammett was a tall skinny guy. Skinny guys often like to think of themselves as a little bulkier, just as short guys like me dream of ourselves as being six feet tall.
OTSP asks: What contemporary authors do you read that you suspect may have the influence and staying power of Dashiell Hammett?
I think Hammett had an enormous literary influence, most notably, probably, on mystery writers though he didn’t think much of the form. Late in his life, he said that no writer in America had been responsible for influencing such bad fiction as he. I think the most significant influence he had was as a modernist writer, and in France he is revered. Jean-Paul Sartre admired his work, as did Malraux and Gide. Hammett and Hemingway may not have influenced one another, but they were plowing the same field, and their works have much in common. Among living writers who are influenced by Hammett, Paul Auster stands out. But increasingly, writers and readers are seeing Hammett outside the context of mystery fiction as a writer who used the detective to explore ethics in a world in which traditional institutions have failed and to present what philosophers later called the existential dilemma—that is how does one determine right from wrong; how do you arrive at your values; what matters? He stripped artifice from fiction.
But I see I didn’t answer your question, which wasn’t about influence but staying power. That gets to who are my favorite writers. I could name many, but Ken Kesey, Julian Barnes, and T. C. Boyle are three particular favorites of mine who have written during my lifetime. I would recommend Joe Gores as a detective-fiction writer. His Spade and Archer, a prequel to The Maltese Falcon is masterful.
OTSP asks: Effie, or Brigid?
Excellent question. I would add one more choice—Iva. One of my favorite chapters in the novel is called Three Women. There Hammett presents telling portrayals of the three different women in the novel—all different types, and all of whom Spade is loyal to in his fashion. And the portrayal says as much about Spade as about the women.
I must say that I find Brigid very sexy (maybe that’s my Spade role-playing). She is beautiful; she is dangerous; and she is a liar who relies on her sex appeal to get her way. Spade knows that early in the first chapter, but she is Spade’s client and, being a professional, he does for her precisely what he is paid to do. And while he is seduced by her (or she by him) he is enough smarter than Miles Archer to get out of her clutches alive.
Effie is an angel. She is lovable, devoted, innocent—and boyish. When she accuses Spade of being attracted to Iva, he responds “I never know what to do or say to women, except that way.” Spade is completely devoted to Effie, but he isn’t going to marry her, as much as he loves her. He is a pragmatist above all, and workplace romances would leave him vulnerable.
And Iva is a woman he has been attracted to “that way.” She is, or has been, Spade’s lover, and though he tells Effie he wishes he had never seen her, he did have a sexual relationship with her, and as a result he feels a responsibility toward her. Though she puts him in danger in the novel, and though it would be easy to tell her to get lost, he never turns his back on her. I think the last scene in the novel is brilliant. It gives me chills every time I read it. Spade tells Effie what has happened and she sees a vision of pure evil that she had lacked the knowledge or experience to understand earlier. At that moment, she moves from a state of innocence to experience. Then Effie tells him Iva is in the office. He shivers and says send her in. You can go on and on about that scene and what it says about Spade and about his situation and about its universal applications and how it demonstrates Hammett’s brilliant sense of dramatic structure. That’s the stuff of literature as opposed to words on a page. Scenes like that are why I think Hammett is a great writer and that The Maltese Falcon is a great book.
OTSP: Thank you, Dr. Layman!
About Richard Layman
Richard Layman is a publisher and author specializing in American literature and social history. He attended Indiana University, the University of Louisville, and the University of South Carolina, where he received his Ph.D. in 1975. Among his books are six on Dashiell Hammett, including the definitive bibliography; Shadow Man, the first full-length biography; Hammett’s Selected Letters (with Julie Rivett as Associate Editor), and, most recently, Discovering The Maltese Falcon and Sam Spade. Layman’s books have twice been nominated for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award. A trustee of the Literary Property Trust of Dashiell Hammett, he has also written or edited books on Ring Lardner and John Dos Passos, as well as general works on American literature.
Layman is president of Bruccoli Clark Layman, producers of award-winning reference books since 1978, including the 375-volume (to date) Dictionary of Literary Biography, called the most impressive literary reference series in publishing history by Library Journal, and the social histories American Decades (10 Volumes) and American Eras (8 volumes).
His extra-literary pursuits include power lifting; he holds three AAPF national records in his age and weight class.
He lives in Columbia, South Carolina with his wife Nancy.