February 28, 2008

Hammett Time

Here's something to file under 'coincidences.' I was just revising my notes for Monday's meeting of Mystery and Detective Fiction, for a lecture and discussion section focusing primarily on the story Sam Spade tells Brigid O'Shaughnessy in Chapter 7 of The Maltese Falcon about "a man named Flitcraft." Feeling restless with work, though (it's still Reading Week, after all), I flipped around to a few of my usual bloggy haunts and almost immediately landed at this post over at the Guardian's book blog:
Like most readers, I often wonder what it is that makes some books more appealing than others. It's an impossible problem to solve definitively, but the explanation I'm finding most persuasive this week is that part of it - possibly the greater part - is in the digressions. Digression in writing is risky: nobody wants to read 500 pages when 250 will do. But in the right hands it's exhilarating.

This is especially true in the kind of writing that otherwise gets right to the point. In fact one of the most remarkable and arresting digressions I've ever come across is the "Flitcraft parable", which appears about a third of the way into Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. (read the rest here)
I think the author of the post is entirely right that the seemingly gratuitous character of this story, which comes just when we think the action of the plot is really heating up, is precisely what makes it so significant and effective; we are driven to ask why it is there at all, forced, as it were, into being critics and interpreters instead of 'just' a passive audience. And, as the post suggests, its relevance is not limited to The Maltese Falcon; rather, the story stands as a pointed, if elliptical, primer on an entire worldview. (One major work of criticism about Hammett is actually called Beams Falling.) In my class discussion, we will think about how someone would (or could or should) act who sees the world in that way, as governed entirely by "blind chance." What, for instance, is the place of love in that world? Where do you find your guiding principles, to combat or survive the randomness? Sam, of course, defines himself through his work, choosing an ethos of professional loyalty over sentiment: "When a man's partner is killed he's supposed to do something about it." After detailing his reasons for turning Brigid in, he points out that all they've got on the other side of the argument "is the fact that maybe you love me and maybe I love you." It's possible that he never does in fact love her, but my reading of the novel has been that he does, as much as he can, but that he rates that feeling as less important than the code he lives by. It's a rational response but a chilling one, which is presumably why Effie asks him not to touch her once she knows and he himself ends the novel shivering.

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