Posts Tagged ‘the maltese falcon’
You really ought to read The Maltese Falcon. Not because it’s well-written and a blast to read, or interesting as a prototype of the detective thriller genre. You ought to read it because of the fascinating knot of meanings represented by the novel’s eponymous macguffin.
(Spoilers ahead, obviously, if you care for such things.)
What is the Maltese Falcon? Let me quote at length:
‘[The Knights Hospitaller] were rolling in wealth, sir. You’ve no idea. None of us has any idea. For years they had preyed on the Saracens, had taken nobody knows what spoils of gems, precious metals, silks, ivories — the cream of the cream of the East. That is history, sir. We all know that the Holy Wars to them, as to the Templars, were largely a matter of loot.
‘Well, now, the Emperor Charles has given them Malta, and all the rent he asks is one insignificant bird per annum, just as a matter of form. What could be more natural than for these immeasurably wealthy knights to look around for some way of expressing their gratitude? Well, sir, that’s exactly what they did, and they hit on the happy thought of sending Charles for the first year’s tribute, not an insignificant live bird, but a glorious golden falcon encrusted from head to foot with the finest jewels in their coffers. And — remember, sir — they had fine ones, the finest out of Asia.’
This is really extremely transparent, isn’t it? The falcon stands for the spoils of the Crusades, extracted from the Muslim world by fire and sword.
Initially, the book is “about” early 20th-century San Francisco’s seedy underside, where you can’t tell a lawyer from a fence, or a crime lord from the District Attorney. Everyone implicitly understands the rules of the genre: it transports us to a city bled dry of colour, shrouded in perpetual fog, populated by cynical men and treacherous women. Perhaps Dashiell Hammett’s contemporaries could have read it as taking place in the actual, real-world San Francisco; in the year 2011, that reading is no longer possible. All other things being equal, it might as well have been set in a galaxy far, far away.
The falcon, however, swoops into that self-contained little world, bringing with it something unthinkable: history. We are forcefully yanked out of our escapist fantasy about the handsome, ruthless, pleasantly Satanic detective and find ourselves in a completely different story. We’re still watching cops and gangsters, but their petty squabbling is recontextualized as a result of, at the very least, 500 years of human history: warfare and pillage and trade and theft and colonisation. The falcon makes visible the unseen forces driving the conflict.
What’s so exciting about this is the specificity. The statuette isn’t just some vaguely precious thing; it quite explicitly represents vast, inconceivable amounts of blood money. What an absolutely capital notion.
But the best part? When the bird finally appears, so to speak, in the flesh, it isn’t even the real one. Casper Gutman has stolen a fake; the real priceless falcon remains in the hands of Kemidov, the Russian general. The petty crooks have chased it relentlessly for years, pinned all their hopes on it, patted themselves on the back for outsmarting the “stupid soldier” — all for nothing. And even confronted with this failure, Gutman vows to continue his pursuit! (Presumably it doesn’t matter, as Sam Spade immediately hands him over to the cops. Nominally for murder, but that’s incidental; the text makes it clear enough that his actual crime was against the general’s property.)
I’m sure I don’t have to belabour this point. The golden bird remains elsewhere, in Constantinople, in a rich man’s mansion, and those who dared imagine it could ever be theirs are well and proper fucked.
There are two more big things to talk about in the novel — the significance of “The East/Asia/Orient/the Levant” and the gender politics — and I might come back to that in another post. Or not, who knows.