The Maltese Falcon and hyper-masculine novels

The Maltese Falcon

For the church classics book club, we’re reading Dashiell Hammett’s classic detective novel, The Maltese Falcon. I’m not a big fan. I actually roll my eyes at just about everything the protagonists do. For example, take this exchange:

She suddenly moved close to him on the settee and cried angrily: “Can I buy you with my body?”

Their faces were a few inches apart. Spade took her face between his hands and he kissed her mouth roughly and contemptuously. Then he sat back and said: “I’ll think it over.” His face was hard and furious.

Or this one:

Spade’s arms went around her, holding her to him, muscles bulging his blue sleeves, a hand cradling her head, its fingers half lost among red hair, a hand moving groping fingers over her slim back. His eyes burned yellowly.

Um, barf. Most of the book sounds just like this, like it was written by an 11th-grade boy who is trying his hand at noir short stories.

Here we have the detective Sam Spade, 110% American male, fighting the dark forces with his cool masculinity. The dark forces, so far, happen to be embodied by a highly stereotyped man named Joel Cairo, who is usually just called “the Levantine” (had to look it up; old-fashioned term for someone from Israel, Lebanon, or Syria) and is just a prototypical image of the “Arab enemy.” It’s gross. And then we have Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the dame in the quotation above. You can pretty much guess that she’s always sexy and impulsive and pulling wads of cash out of her bra.

Some people like these kinds of novels. My dad, for instance, likes Ayn Rand and Clive Cussler. He’d probably like Dan Brown, too, if he had read him. It’s easy to see why Hollywood also likes these kinds of novels and is always adapting them into film; they read like run-of-the-mill screenplays. Authors like Rand, Cussler, Brown, and yes, Hammett, play into a formula in which one can simply plug in a number of variables–and then, poof! Bestselling novel. Add some grossly overused and stereotypical characters (uber-macho, dangerous man + voluptuous woman in need of rescue) and lots of guns, explosions, sex, and cliff-hanger moments and you’re golden.

Personally, I fundamentally reject the notion that literature can be crafted from such an easy set of variables. There’s a reason why Dashiell Hammett is remembered for basically inventing the detective novel genre, but there’s also a reason why no one remembers him as a great writer. The same goes for Ayn Rand, Clive Cussler, and Dan Brown. They write dramatic page-turners, but they don’t write great literature.

I kind of want someone to prove me wrong, though. Do you know of a novel that fits this general hyper-macho mold that is generally regarded as part of the literary canon? If so, why can it be included and not these others? Hemingway and Steinbeck come to mind as writers of hyper-masculine novels who are considered critical to the American canon. I think the differentiation between them and the crowd of thinly disguised screenwriters is that Hemingway and Steinbeck knew when to avoid a crippling stereotype and craft a deep, meaningful character. Any thoughts? Am I totally off-base in my utter disregard for this novel and those like it?

Advertisements

5 thoughts on “The Maltese Falcon and hyper-masculine novels

  1. I began reading your piece with some skepticism because of your mock histrionics (“barf,” etc.) and your seeming lack of literary history, but in the end, I respect your point of view. This is not “great literature,” though Hammet has the primal force of innovation on his side and he is tremendously entertaining, but these may be easy to miss if you decontextualize him. You err a bit, though, in objecting to stereotypes that everyone bought into in a particular epoch. Only really profound writers escape from any of these, and then maybe not: e.g. Dostoevsky’s anti-Semitism, Melville’s unconscious racism. On the other hand Shakespeare, because he is so profoundly great, fully humanizes Shylock even as he makes him a money-grubbing Jew/villain, or Iago’s wife, articulating the deepest arguments for women’s equality! If you are interested, I could say more, but otherwise, I’ll stop where I am. You’re right to make qualitative distinctions regarding writers (Ayn Rand is just bad, period), but keep historical epoch in mind and role in the evolution of literature in mind as you do so! Dickens is hugely great, even though he can sentimentalize to a ridiculous degree! Hemingway, despite his “masculinity” and private flaws sees right though to the racism and sexism of his characters in the early stories. Thanks for loving literature!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s