Sam Spade, a private detective, gets involved with a group of murderous characters in search of a “dingus,” a black bird: The Maltese Falcon, a priceless jewel-encrusted statue, presented to the Knights Templar, along with the island of Malta, by Charles V of Spain, lost for centuries. With this story, Hammett presented us with one of the greatest plots in mysterydom.
In Chapter 7, Spade tells Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the femme fatale of the novel, a story about a man named Flitcraft. The man lived in Tacoma, and one day while strolling around during his lunch hour, he narrowly missed being hit by a falling beam from a construction site. If the beam had struck him, it would have killed him. Spade says this left Flitcraft feeling “like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.” Chaos had entered his comfortable world, and he concluded that life was merely a matter of chance. “What disturbed him was the discovery that in sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step, and not into step, with life.” Flitcraft left his job, his wife and children, and he set out to wander aimlessly.
George Cotkin, in Existential America, remarks that “Here we have Hammett’s take on the human condition. Men and women sleepwalk through existence, clutching at illusions and complacency. When the natural cracks in an existential moment, the potential for freedom, for a new birth, opens up.”
Cotkin’s explanation fits because the theme of The Maltese Falcon is illusion. I would go into that more but I would hate to give out any spoilers for those who have not read the book or seen the movie.
Years later when Mrs. Flitcraft hires Spade to find her long lost husband, the detective discovers that he has settled down once again, this time in Spokane, living a similar life to the one he left behind. He had a new job, new family, and name, Charles Pierce (a reference to Charles Stanley Pierce, a nineteenth century philosopher who wrote about “random occurrence”).
Spade tells Brigid, “He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”
Flitcraft’s wandering is a reaction to the capriciousness of fate. But I think Spade is using the story to tell Brigid that regardless of whether or not she is being straight with him, in the end it will not matter, he will adjust, and he won’t play the sap for her. In this way, Sam Spade, the iconic private detective, is like the Taoist sage who moves through life in boundless freedom, exuding wisdom, secure in the knowledge that beams falling, and not falling, is the natural order of things.
Adjusting is not the same as complacency, or “settling.” Lao Tzu says that the sage avoids complacency, and yet does not try to make things happen. The sage allows things to happen by themselves, and “helps the people find their own nature, while refraining from action.”
Life is series of happenings. When we resist what happens, we open the door to problems. So then, all this to say, let things flow naturally and go with that flow.
Dashiell Hammett was not the best writer of detective stories, but perhaps the most influential. His innovation was to take murder out of the drawing room and put it back on the streets where it belonged. He became about as successful a writer as one could be. Then, with the years of money and success in Hollywood were behind him, he refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee and went to jail. He was 57 years old and emerged from imprisonment, according to his partner Lillian Hellman, “a thin man thinner, a sick man sicker.” But he had survived. He adjusted to beams falling.
By the way, TCM is showing The Maltese Falcon today at 6:15pm EST (3:15 PST). This superb version directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet, is extremely faithful to Hammett’s novel. I consider it the first film noir and probably the best detective movie ever made.
If you miss this viewing, it might show up on TCM On Demand.