The Maltese Falcon:
How could a "member" be so "ist?"


My friend Dayna returned from an architectural tour of San Francisco. She capped her site seeing with a seafood dinner at John’s Grill.

“Dashiell Hammett and Sam Spade hung out there,” she said. Ever the city planner Dayna added, “You should read the Maltese Falcon to understand what San Francisco is about.”

I had given up on the Maltese Falcon at least twice. The details were too tedious and the action too slow. At Dayna’s urging, I gave the book another chance, reading slowly to envision San Francisco, 25 years after the automobile revolution and at the dawn of the radio revolution.

The book was written around 1929 by Dashiell Hammett who later became the lover of left-wing playwright Lillian Hellman. It depicts the lifestyle of the very rich.

The story is obviously fiction. Can you imagine people buying
newspapers andoperators dialing telephone numbers? What happened to the internet, iPhones and blackberries? It’s almost as bizarre as the story that Priscilla Hiss used a typewriter to copy pilfered documents.

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The 1940 movie: Sam Spade, Joel Cairo, Bridgid O'Shaunghnessy, Caspar Gutman

What surprises me most about the Maltese Falcon, is how “ist” the writer was. If not officially a member, Dashiell Hammett was reputed to have traveled in the orbit of the Communist Party. Some leftist! He had no sense of political correctness. His depiction of Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor in the movie) is totally sexist. He description of the gay character Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre in the movie) is 200 per cent heterosexist. However, Hammett’s greatest incorrectness is his insensitive portrayal of persons of size. This is how he describes Caspar Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet in the movie):


Spade went in. A fat man came to meet him.

The fat man was flabbily fat with bulbous pink cheeks and lips and chins and neck, with a great soft egg of a belly that was all his torso, and pendant cones for arms and legs. As he advanced to meet Spade all his bulbs rose and shook and fell separately with each step, in the manner of clustered soap-bubbles not yet released from the pipe through which they had been blown. His eyes, made small by fat puffs around them, were dark and sleek. Dark ringlets thinly covered his broad scalp. He wore a black cutaway coat, black vest, black satin. Ascot tie holding a pinkish pearl, striped grey worsted trousers, and patent-leather shoes.



Dashiell Hammett, Five Complete Novels, Avenel Books, New York, page 363.

Maybe Hammett was a red, maybe not. But at least Dayna, who wore black patent leather shoes when she visited John's Grill, told the truth. Hammett hung out at John’s Grill.

At page 404-405, Sam Spade

called another number and said: “Hello, Frank. This is Sam Spade. . . . Can you let me have a car with a driver who’ll keep his mouth shut? . . . To go down the peninsula right away. . . . Just a couple of hours. . . . Right. Have him pick me up at John’s, Ellis Street, as soon as he can make it.

He called another number--his office’s--held the receiver to his ear for a little while without saying anything, and replaced it on its hook.

He went to John’s Grill, asked the waiter to hurry his order of chops, baked potato, and sliced tomatoes, and ate hurriedly, and was smoking a cigarette with his coffee when a ticket-set youngish man with a plaid cap set askew above pale eyes and a tough cheery face came into the Grill and to his table.


I’ve been a vegetarian for 18 years. I understand potatoes and tomatoes.
But what are chops?