Learning from The Maltese Falcon

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Read on to the end of this post, for you will get one of the greatest trivia questions of all time. Use it to flummox your film snob friends (and isn’t that what life is all about?)

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett is one of the great American novels. In fact, I think it should replace The Great Gatsby on high school reading lists (that is, if they still have high school reading lists that look at quality fiction for no other reason than that it has quality). The book is more exciting and true to human life than Gatsby, and has all sorts of characters and themes running through it.

I mean, come on! Greed, sex, money, murder, mystery, and the hero’s code. Gatsby teaches kids (who can get through the book) that you don’t always get what you want. The Maltese Falcon teaches a much better lesson: don’t trust somebody just because you think they’re hot like Brigid O’Shaughnessy.

And do the right thing, even if it tears your heart out.

The novel has been made into a movie three times. The first version starred Ricardo Cortez, an actor with a handsome smile and all the acting range from A to B. He had “Latin features” which was a big deal at the time (late 20s, early 30s) because of Rudolph Valentino’s popularity. But Ricardo Cortez was no more Latin than a plate of gefilte fish. He was born Jacob Krantz, son of Morris and Sarah Lefkovitz Krantz, in the Bronx. But the studio heads saw a chance to turn him into a talkies version of Valentino. Thus, the new name.

In this 1931 film, Cortez plays Sam Spade as a kind of laughing Lothario, always giving ladies’ legs a creepy once over. A strange choice, given the tone of the novel, which was captured most brilliantly by the John Huston version starring Humphrey Bogart, made in 1941. (The other version was a loose one, Satan Met a Lady (1936) starring Bette Davis and Warren William. This “light-hearted” rendition was not met with critical acclaim. The leading film critic of the day, Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, said of it, “So disconnected and lunatic are the picture’s incidents, so irrelevant and monstrous its people, that one lives through it in constant expectation of seeing a group of uniformed individuals appear suddenly from behind the furniture and take the entire cast into protective custody.”)

Dwight Frye as Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon (1931)

But I will give the Cortez Falcon props for one great casting decision. In the book there’s a “gunsel” named Wilmer Cook. He’s the henchman and catamite for the fat man, Casper Gutman. While nicely played by Elisha Cook, Jr. in the Bogart film, Dwight Frye makes an unforgettable Wilmer in the 1931 version.

Frye is best known for his portrayal of Renfield in the Bela Lugosi Dracula. Man, you can’t forget his crazy laugh and his desire to eat flies. And those eyes! He was dubbed “the man with the thousand-watt stare,” and that’s what he brings to Wilmer.

More interesting things you should know about The Maltese Falcon:

  • There are three prop falcon statuettes still in existence from the 1941 movie. Each is valued at around $1 million.
  • In the novel, the fat man is Casper Gutman. In the shooting script for the 1941 version, for some unknown reason, he is listed as “Kasper Gutman.”
  • In the Bogart version, the fat man was famously played by English actor Sydney Greenstreet, in his film debut. At 357 pounds, he certainly embodied the character. The Warner Bros. wardrobe department had to make special clothes to fit Greenstreet. Interestingly, Bogart wore his own clothes for the part of Sam Spade.
  • Mary Astor, who plays Brigid O’Shaughnessy, won an Oscar that same year for her role in The Great Lie. She wasn’t pleased. Why? Because she thought she should have been put up for Brigid! She is brilliant in both movies.
  • Bogart, of course, was a noted onscreen smoker (only Bette Davis rivaled him). But the studio didn’t want him to! Why not? Because they thought that audience members seeing Bogie light up might be tempted to step into the lobby for a quick smoke during the movie. In fact, the studio almost fired John Huston over this issue. But Huston convinced them that Sam Spade’s cig was an indelible part of his character, and the cancer nails remained. (Bogart died of cancer at the age of 57. His widow, Lauren Bacall, later admitted, “Cigarettes killed Bogie.”)

Tips for writers from The Maltese Falcon:

  • It may be the greatest “show, don’t tell” novel ever written. It is in what is called Cinematic-Omniscient POV. That’s because there is no dipping into the thoughts or feelings of any of the characters. It’s like watching a movie on the screen. You see the scene and hear the dialogue.
  • The orchestration of characters is brilliant. You should always create your cast to not only be different from one another, but also in such a way that conflict may arise between any of them at any time. Spade, Brigid, Joel Cairo, Gutman, Wilmer, Effie (Spade’s secretary), Iva (Spade’s mistress), and Detective Tom Polhaus are all unique and have various mini-conflicts with each other throughout the book.
  • Hammett was a master of dialogue, too. The characters all speak with unique voices. One of my favorite examples, from both book and movie, is this exchange between Spade and Joel Cairo, coming some time after Spade knocked Cairo out in Spade’s office.

Spade said: “Let’s go some place where we can talk.”

Cairo raised his chin. “Please excuse me,” he said. “Our conversations in private have not been such that I am anxious to continue them.”

Or this between Gutman and Spade:

“Now, sir, we’ll talk if you like. And I’ll tell you right out that I’m a man who likes talking to a man that likes to talk.”

“Swell. Will we talk about the black bird?”

The fat man laughed and his bulbs rode up and down on his laughter. “Will we? We will,” he replied. His pink face was shiny with delight. “You’re the man for me, sir, a man cut along my own lines. No beating about the bush, but right to the point. ‘Will we talk about the black bird?’ We will. I like that, sir. I like that way of doing business. Let us talk about the black bird by all means, but first, sir, answer me a question, please, though maybe it’s an unnecessary one, so we’ll understand each other from the beginning. You’re here as Miss O’Shaughnessy’s representative?”

And now, friends, the great trivia question. Keep this in your back pocket for the next time you get into a film discussion with a know-it-all.

What is the final line in the 1941 movie version of The Maltese Falcon?

You’ll no doubt get the answer that it’s from Bogart: “The stuff that dreams are made of.”

Ah, but there is one more line after that! It’s from Ward Bond, playing Spades’ cop friend Tom Polhaus. He responds, “Huh?”

Have a look!

 You are now the most interesting person in the room. Congrats!

Have you seen or read The Maltese Falcon? (If your answer is no to either, correct that gross mistake ASAP!) What’s your favorite classic detective novel or movie? What can we learn from it?

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Thrillers Bring the Light

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

 As if things weren’t bad enough.

We’re struggling through this national shutdown and all the dire consequences thereof, and along comes exactly what we don’t need: The murder hornet!

Yes, this unsightly wasp with its ugly orange head and relatively large body mass, has arrived on our shores intent on killing innocent little honey bees and, indeed, the occasional human.

But just when we think we are in the midst of a Stephen King nightmare, along comes a hero, a savior, a defender of all that is good and decent and pure: the praying mantis!

How appropriate that the vanquisher of a grotesque insect villain should turn out to be an insect of another sort—one that humbly supplicates to the Creator before chomping the brains of its adversary.

That’s entomological justice!

Which is what mystery, suspense, and thrillers are all about. They take us through the valley of the shadow of death, toward the light on the other side.

At least, the best ones do.

That’s been the secret of the popularity of this kind of fiction since it took off in the nineteenth century. Most scholars agree that the modern mystery story can be traced to Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841). Here is the invention of the sleuth who, through the powers of observation and deduction, solves a seemingly inexplicable crime.

Which offers hope to a population that must believe, “Crime doesn’t pay.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took it to the next level with the invention of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes endures, even today, not simply because of his brainpower, but because of his eccentricities. He’s entertaining as well as brilliant. He’s flawed, too, just like us. But again we see the hope that deduction brings—justice will be done.

Back here in America we took the simple mystery and transformed it through the hardboiled school of the pulps. The quintessential detective hero of this type issued from the typewriter of Dashiell Hammett: Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1930). This hero is not refined or dainty or a tea drinker. He is tough, cynical, sometimes brutal. But in the end he still gets justice. The mystery of the black bird is solved, but more importantly each of the nefarious characters Spade has dealt with get their comeuppance, including the femme fatale Spade has fallen in love with, Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Spade “sends her over” because, after all, she killed his partner. Spade tries to explain it to her: “When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.”

Underneath his contradictions, Sam Spade is still guided by a moral code.

In the detective pantheon, Spade was followed by Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Marlowe, like Spade, is tough and cynical (but a lot more fun to listen to) and has a code based on honor. Indeed, in Chandler’s world, Marlowe is something of knight errant in a fedora. Chandler made this plain in his 1944 essay, “The Simple Art of Murder.” Here is the famous passage:

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and; a good enough man for any world.

As Professor David Schmid puts it in his course on mystery and suspense fiction:

Chandler’s essay helps us understand that hard-boiled mysteries appeal to the reader both because of their unvarnished, realistic cynicism and also because their private-eye protagonists embody an alternative to that cynicism, an oasis of personal responsibility and integrity in a world that is sorely in need of both.

The world is always in need of the heroic vision. The best thriller, mystery, and suspense novels offer that to us. No matter how mean the streets, or dark the night, justice, even if rough, somehow prevails through the strength and courage of the hero.

Yes, there is a type of novel that begins and ends in the darkness—noir. For example, the world of Jim Thompson (e.g., The Killer Inside Me; Savage Night) is not your grandmother’s cozy little village. Yet even as his grifters and psychopaths meet their ends, there is a rough noir-justice being doled out. While it isn’t a hero who “solves” things, there is a price to pay for the criminal choices made.This type of novel provides what Aristotle called catharsis. We see the consequences of an immoral life and thus are instructed not to go there. Thus, even dark noir can have a candlelight’s flame of moral illumination.

All this to say that the lasting popularity of mystery, suspense, and thrillers is based primarily on a hero bringing us justice, re-enforcing our belief that good will prevail and that light will shine again. As Dr. Schmid says at the end of his course:

Although experimental examples of mystery and suspense fiction may be well respected as aesthetic objects, they aren’t popular with wide audiences. In the final analysis, it seems that we can tolerate only so much experimentation and frustration. Perhaps the ultimate secret to great mystery and suspense fiction is that, in one way or another, it satisfies a deep-seated desire we all have for the world around us to make sense.

Isn’t that why you continue to read this kind of fiction? In a world that increasingly isn’t making sense, don’t we need these books more than ever?

 

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How to Describe Your Main Character

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Going to be a long post today, so pack a lunch. And be prepared to add to the discussion. The issues are important and come to me by way of an email (quoted with permission):

I know what 3rd Person Limited is, how it works, etc. based on the books and writing groups, etc. One issue that keeps coming up in my critique group about my characters is I don’t describe them early on (i.e. first couple of chapters) as the three POV characters haven’t met or interacted as of yet. I know the reflection scenario is cliche, etc.

The question- do you know some different techniques that could be used to provide character description in the 3rd Person POV? For example, would something like this be okay?

Maxwell rubbed at the double cleft of his chin or His thick fingers combed through his mop of black hair picking up the oily grease used to mat it down.

The issues raised are these:

1. How much description of a main character do you need?

2. What’s the best way to show descriptive elements on the page and remain true to POV?

3. What role does genre play in all this?

  1. How much description?

In days of yore, authors often began in an omniscient voice for a description of the protagonist before dropping down into Third Person POV. For example, here’s the first paragraph of Gone With the Wind:

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends. Above them, her thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin — that skin so prized by Southern women and so carefully guarded with bonnets, veils and mittens against hot Georgia suns.

And the opening of The Maltese Falcon: 

Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down–from high flat temples–in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

And this from page 2 of For Whom the Bell Tolls: 

The young man, who was tall and thin, with sun-streaked fair hair, and a wind- and sun-burned face, who wore the sun-faded flannel shirt, a pair of peasant’s trousers and rope-soled shoes, leaned over, put his arm through one of the leather pack straps and swung the heavy pack up onto his shoulders.

There’s nothing technically wrong with any of these. It’s a style choice. And I don’t think readers care that much, as long as the description is short and sweet, and we get to some action soon.

But styles change, and today the preferred method is to keep the POV consistent from the jump.

The real question is this: how much detail do we need? And I’m going to say: not much.

Why not? Because all readers form an immediate picture of a character the moment they appear on the page. Without any description at all, we create a visual image, usually based on the actions and dialogue going on.

And you know what else? That picture will usually defy writerly details. Does anyone really picture Sam Spade as a “blond satan”? (I know, it’s probably because of Bogart…but even so, I can’t imagine Spade ever as being blond.) My picture of Spade emerges from the way he talks and how he treats the other characters.

In Dean Koontz’s Sole Survivor, Joe Carpenter wakes up in the middle of the night, clutching his pillow, calling out his dead wife’s name in the dark. Koontz describes the spare apartment he’s in. No bed, just a mattress. No other furniture. He goes to the refrigerator and gets a beer. He sits on the mattress and drinks.

We never get a physical description of Joe. We don’t need one. Just reading the first few pages I have a picture of Joe in my mind. It’s not the same picture you have, or any other reader, and that doesn’t matter. I see him, but more importantly, I sympathize with him. I don’t need to know the color of his eyes, or his hair, or his height.

There is, however, one detail that is usually important for the reader to know, and that’s age. Readers will assign an age to a character. They will “see” a picture in their minds. You can help them along by giving them dialogue and actions commensurate with the character’s age in the story. For example, a cop arriving at a crime scene and jumping out of his cruiser is not going to be pictured as Walter Brennan.

But sometimes the age must be specific. If so, find a place where the character might logically think about his age. For example, he’s about to walk into his workplace. At thirty-three, he was in his fifth year with the company. So why was he feeling like a complete newbie?

What we would call normal physical features are not usually crucial for the reader. What is important are any unique features that help to characterize: A scar on the cheek. A broken nose. Long, unkempt hair. Being tall. Being short. These are the details you’ll want to emphasize.

  1. What’s the best way to show descriptive elements on the page and remain true to POV?

The general rule is, never describe something in words the character himself wouldn’t use. In the example from the email, above, would the character think, “I’m rubbing my thick fingers through my black hair”? No. He knows his fingers and he knows his hair color. I recently read an opening page that had something like this:

Haskins looked around the room with his piercing, blue eyes.
“Over here, chief,” one of the cops said.
Lifting his lanky frame out of the chair, Haskins walked over to the cop.

Would Haskins think this way? No, this description is coming from the “outside,” that is, from the author, which makes it omniscient POV. Is this some egregious violation? I wouldn’t say so (though some editors might label it “author intrusion”). I just don’t think it’s that effective.

So what’s the alternative? Try a dialogue exchange. Have another character do the describing for you. In my first Mike Romeo thriller, Romeo’s Rules, I wanted readers to know this is a guy who is strong and in shape. On page one Mike is jogging when he stops to admire the flowers being tended by a woman who is around sixty. After some initial chat:

She put out her hand. “Nell,” she said.
“Mike,” I said.
“Happy to meet you, Mike. Except …”
“Yes?”
“You don’t look like a flower man.”
“What do I look like?”
“Football player, maybe?”
I shook my head.
“Then what exactly do you do with all those muscles?”
“Are you flirting with me, Nell?”

This is First Person POV, of course, but is equally applicable to Third Person.

The other physical detail crucial to Romeo is the tattoo on his left arm. It’s Latin script: Vincit Omnia Veritas. Other characters naturally ask about it. One character wants to know if his name is “Vincent.” Another character can actually read Latin. And so on. The tat is remarked on in each book, giving me a chance to naturally reiterate what Mike Romeo’s drive in life is all about—Truth Conquers All Things.

Be sure to give these distinguishing details early in Act 1. If you wait until page 240 to reveal that your hero has one green eye and one blue eye, the change will be jarring. The reader will actually feel cheated. Why didn’t you tell me that earlier?

Yet it doesn’t have to be on page one either. If it’s early enough, readers will happily adjust their picture as needed. In the first Jack Reacher, Killing Floor (which is told in First Person), Reacher is sitting in a diner when cops come in to arrest him. He’s taken to a station for questioning. It’s not until page 16 that we get any description of Reacher. A cop explains that a murder took place, and a man was seen, “a white man, very tall, wearing a long black overcoat, fair hair, no hat, no baggage.” This gives Reacher as narrator a natural way to drop in the following:

Silence again. I am a white man. I am very tall. My hair is fair. I was sitting there wearing a long black overcoat. I didn’t have a hat. Or a bag.

Or, in the alternative, the cop could have said, “Just like you. What’d you do with the hat and the bag?”

So, the fundamentals are:

– Use description only for unique features.

– Use other characters to spell them out or, in the case of First Person, have a legit reason to mention them.

– Drop these details in early enough in the book that it won’t jar the reader later.

  1. What role does genre play?

My friend, bestselling author Deborah Raney, reminds me that in a romance eye and hair color (even if vague like “pale” or “dark”) are important because those are things the heroine will notice about the hero and vice versa.

In a literary novel where style is often a selling point, a lush description of the main character is more acceptable.

In a historical novel, the way a character dresses is usually important because it shows the reader something about the era the story is set in.

And in an experimental novel there are no rules, so do whatever the heck you want.

Whew. Okay, enjoy your lunch now. And take over from here. What questions or comments do you have about main character description?

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Bonding Character and Reader

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Lee Patrick as Effie Perine in The Maltese Falcon (1941)

What is the most important thing your novel must accomplish with the opening pages?

A gripping first line? An action-driven plot? World building? A compelling lead character? Style? Voice?

All of the above?

Well, sure! If you can do all that, do it. But let me suggest that there’s something else, without which these elements won’t be as effective.

What the author must do, as soon as possible, is bond the character to the reader. It’s an emotional alchemy that render fictive gold. When the reader is not just interested in, but emotionally connected to the main character, the urge to turn pages ramps up to its fullest potential.

This is why the concept of the opening disturbance is so crucial. When a character is confronted with threat or challenge, we have a naturally sympathetic reaction. We can identify. We’ve all been there. That’s why this a good first step to the bonding I’m talking about.

An even more powerful effect can be achieved by adding a second technique, one I call the Care Package. It’s one of my fourteen signpost scenes as laid out in Super Structure.

In the most basic sense, it refers to a caring relationship is in place before the story begins between the main character and someone else. This is to distinguish it from Pet the Dog, which is when the Lead, somewhere in the middle of the story, takes time to help another character who is weaker and in need.

A perfect example of both is in The Hunger Games. When we first meet Katniss, she is out hunting to feed her family—her mother and her little sister, Prim. Katniss’ actions are illegal, but she does this out of love. Those relationships are in place before the novel begins. Author Suzanne Collins also includes in this Care Package a scruffy cat that Katniss does not like. This is a skillful addition, for the Care Package works even if a character is resentful about the relationship and the caring is done out of obligation. That works because we admire those who do their duty, regardless of feelings.

In the middle of the book, Katniss becomes the protector of the weakest of the tributes in the Games—Rue. That’s an example of Pet the Dog. It is a relationship formed after the story is well under way.

I got an email recently from a writer who asked if the Care Package could be something the character is passionate about, like basketball or playing the piano.

The short answer is No. It has to be a human or an animal (as in Dorothy and Toto in The Wizard of Oz, or Terry Malloy and his pigeons in On the Waterfront). Being in love with an activity falls under the umbrella of self-interest. Caring about another person is the essence of selflessness.

Note, too, that the Care Package applies to any genre. Even the hardest of hardboiled fiction, as demonstrated in this passage from Dashiell Hammett’s classic, The Maltese Falcon:

When Spade reached his office at ten o’clock the following morning Effie Perine was at her desk opening the morning’s mail. Her boyish face was pale under its sunburn. She put down the handful of envelopes and the brass paper-knife she held and said: “She’s in there.” Her voice was low and warning.

“I asked you to keep her away,” Spade complained. He too kept his voice low.

Effie Perine’s brown eyes opened wide and her voice was irritable as his: “Yes, but you didn’t tell me how.” Her eyelids went together a little and her shoulders drooped. “Don’t be cranky, Sam,” she said wearily. “I had her all night.”

Spade stood beside the girl, put a hand on her head, and smoothed her hair away from its parting. “Sorry, angel, I haven’t—” He broke off as the inner door opened. “Hello, Iva,” he said to the woman who had opened it.

One action: smoothing her hair. One line, and not even one Spade gets to finish! This moment is the only bit of tenderness Sam Spade shows to anybody in the book. But Hammett knew it would stand out for that very reason. We get one peek that Spade is not made of pure ice…because he has someone in his life he cares about.

Simple exercise: Before writing your novel, take ten minutes to brainstorm a list of possible Care Packages for your main character. Make some based in love and others out of duty. Eventually you will find the one that feels just right.

It will feel just right to the readers, too.

The floor is open. What Care Packages can you think of from favorite novels or films? NOTE: I’m in travel mode today so my comments will be scarce. Talk amongst yourselves!

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