But the story of "a man named Flitcraft," who one day disappears from his life and then must explain himself in a room at the Davenport Hotel, has become a landmark, not only in noir, hard-boiled mystery writing and 20th-century existentialist fiction, but in the literature of Spokane as well.
Even without Spokane's brief cameo, The Maltese Falcon would be a swell choice for The Big Read, a month of book- and movie-related activities (see schedule) presented by Spokane area libraries, Fairchild Air Force Base and the National Endowment for the Arts. Since its release in 1930, The Maltese Falcon has been called a lot of things -- "the best detective story ever written" for one -- but no one has ever called it boring. And watching the 1941 Humphrey Bogart movie version instead isn't cheating because The Maltese Falcon is one of the few works to earn places in both the Modern Library's 100 Best Novels and the American Film Institute's 100 Best Films.
The Maltese Falcon tells the story of Sam Spade, a private detective in San Francisco whose partner is murdered while working a bogus case for a beautiful dame named Brigid O'Shaughnessy. As Spade sticks his V-shaped nose deeper into the case (which revolves around the jewel-encrusted statue of the title) there is no shortage of plot. But plot is hardly the point. The genius of Hammett's book lies in its cool, clear-eyed prose, which mirrors its amoral outlook: People lie. Life is tough. Big deal.
The Flitcraft Parable, as it has been called, really has nothing to do with the falcon or the dame or the dead partner, which is why it calls so much attention to itself in Hammett's economical book. At the beginning of Chapter Seven, with the story in full bloom, the stoical Spade inexplicably pauses the action to tell Miss O'Shaughnessy "about a thing that had happened some years before in the Northwest."
The story: In 1922, a Tacoma real-estate agent named Flitcraft disappeared, leaving behind an inheritance, a loving wife, two boys, "a new Packard and the rest of the appurtenances of successful American living ... 'He went like that,' Spade said, 'like a fist when you open your hand.'"
Five years later, Flitcraft is spotted in Spokane and Mrs. Flitcraft hires Spade to track him down. In Spade's room at the Davenport, Flitcraft explains that he was walking to lunch one day when he passed a construction site and a beam fell. The beam barely missed him, shaking him from his prosaic existence. Flitcraft felt:
like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works. ... The life he knew was a clean orderly sane responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things ... He knew then that men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them.
After that Flitcraft simply walked away from his life, without telling a soul. For a while he drifted around the Northwest, but eventually he settled down in "a Spokane suburb," where Spade finds him remarried to a woman much like his first wife:
'You know, the kind of women that play fair games of golf and bridge and like new salad-recipes ... I don't think he even knew he had settled back into the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma. But that's the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.'
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & D & lt;/span & ashiell Hammett's time in Spokane was as brief an episode in his life as the Flitcraft story was in his novel. Born in Maryland in 1894, Samuel Dashiell Hammett went to work in 1915 for the Pinkerton Agency, the largest private detective agency in the United States. After a brief stint as a soldier in World War I, Hammett returned to Pinkerton and was sent to the Spokane office. He lived here from May to November of 1920, at which point he went to a Tacoma hospital for tuberculosis treatment. He got married, had a couple of kids and moved to San Francisco.
He quit Pinkerton in 1922 to write. Most mystery authors learn about detective work to write crime fiction. Hammett was a detective who learned to write. Between 1929 and 1934, he published all five of his novels -- Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key and The Thin Man. As literary outputs go, it's a slender library, but its effect was profound. Calling himself "one of the few people ... who take the detective story seriously," Hammett hoped to "some day ... make 'literature' of it."
That's just what he did. Part of the holy noir trinity -- along with Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain -- Hammett took Ernest Hemingway's carved sentences and post-World War I cynicism and put a fresh coat of paint on the disrespected mystery novel. The Maltese Falcon made him famous and writing for Hollywood in the '30s and '40s made him rich. He got involved in liberal politics, became a Marxist, served in World War II, got smeared by Joseph McCarthy and spent the years before his 1961 death indulging those two staples of a writer's life: drinking and not writing.
So what did Hammett do during his six months in Spokane? It's intriguing to imagine one of his wise-ass detectives skulking around Spokane during its rough-and-tumble heyday, following cheating husbands and recovering stolen insurance dough, but the Pinkertons who worked in 1920 Spokane were closer to today's Blackwater mercenaries than the slick loners of his detective stories.
Founded when police departments were notoriously corrupt and unprofessional, the Pinkerton Agency had a unique role in American history. Its agents guarded President Lincoln during the Civil War, hunted Jesse James and Butch Cassidy and provided national detective work -- for those who could afford it -- decades before it occurred to the FBI. At one time the Pinkerton Agency was larger than the standing U.S. Army. But by 1915, when Hammett joined up, Pinkerton's biggest clients were greedy industrialists and mining magnates who wanted security from union toughs and striking workers, protection for their replacement workers, and the occasional skull-cracking of union members who complained too much.
With its wealthy neighborhoods full of mining and timber barons and a downtown bustling with miners' brothels and booze halls, Spokane was a key battlefield in this labor war. Between 1910 and 1920, the IWW (the Industrial Workers of the World or the Wobblies) was desperately trying to organize Northwest miners. Mine owners were just as desperate to keep them out. In Spokane, IWW organizers gathered on street corners to protest and to solicit members -- a thousand people gathered in Manito Park one day alone -- at which point police goons would be dispatched to thump on the leaders and arrest them. Three cities -- Butte, Mont., Fresno, Calif., and Spokane -- became ground zero for what was called "The Free Speech Movement," the demand by union organizers for the constitutionally guaranteed right to hold public meetings.
Brutal violence erupted on both sides. In 1905, the governor of Idaho was killed in a bombing by a former union leader. In 1911, Spokane's acting police chief was gunned down while he sat in his house. The crime was blamed on an IWW member.
Pinkerton guards hired by the mines were responsible for much of the violence against union leaders. In Utah, union leader Joe Hill was railroaded and hung in 1916. A year later, in Butte, IWW leader Frank Little was lynched. In 1919, another lynch mob grabbed an IWW member in Centralia and beat him, castrated him, hung him in three different locations and shot him several times. The coroner ruled his death a suicide.
This was all coming to a head in 1920, when Hammett arrived in Spokane. Just weeks earlier, 15 striking miners had been shot, two of them fatally, by Pinkerton agents hired to break the strike at the Anaconda Copper Mining Company in Butte. Hammett's first novel Red Harvest is loosely based on his work in Butte. He even claimed later that he was offered $5,000 to kill Frank Little, but scholars discount this story since Little was already dead when Hammett came west.
In the 1981 biography Shadow Man, Richard Layman writes that Hammett "had pleasant memories of his days as a Pinkerton working out of the Spokane office" and that "his most exciting work ... came during the Anaconda strike." Layman relates Hammett's story of rounding up replacement workers with
Blackjack Jerome, the strikebreaker Hammett worked with, who would go into the city early in the morning with a flatbed wagon and round up drunks ... take them across picket lines and dare them to try to go back across alone before he safely escorted them to the city after a full day's hard work.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & hen he wasn't rounding up scabs Hammett worked other cases in Spokane, most memorably, the midget bandit, who was arrested when he returned the day after a robbery to beat up a victim who had mocked his height. Some characters in The Maltese Falcon came from Hammett's Spokane cases, too. According to William Nolan's biography, Hammett, Miles Archer's wife Iva (with whom Sam Spade has an affair) was based on a Spokane bookseller, and the oily bad guy Joel Cairo, immortalized in the film by Peter Lorre, was based on a man Hammett "picked up on a forgery charge in 1920."
But there's no doubt that Dashiell Hammett's lasting legacy to the Lilac City is the character of Flitcraft, who is shaken loose from his stable life in Tacoma and ends up living almost the same life in Spokane.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & f Hammett's goal was to make literature out of the detective novel, the Flitcraft story is his masterpiece, if for no other reason than the number of critical studies and literary allusions devoted to it. In his 2002 novel Book of Illusions, the brilliant American writer and filmmaker Paul Auster re-imagined the Flitcraft tale as the story of a silent film star who disappears and comes to Spokane to start over. Auster followed that book with another novel, Oracle Night, about a writer struggling to rework Flitcraft. The decidedly less brilliant author of the 2005 novel Citizen Vince... uh, me... used the Flitcraft episode as inspiration for his story of criminals coming to Spokane to start over in the Witness Protection program.
In his book, Layman writes that Flitcraft is "the most critically discussed part of any Hammett work." Writers have called it "the thesis of noir" and "an existential parable worthy of Kierkegaard or Sartre." There have been Flitcraft clubs and societies, and at least one Website devoted to the "random philosophy of the falling beam."
Even Flitcraft's alias in Spokane, William Pierce, has a deeper meaning, a reference to William S. Peirce, a logician and philosopher Hammett studied, known for his work with probability, chance and random occurrence (i.e., falling beams).
But in all the pages of criticism about Flitcraft and Hammett, I've never seen a scholar answer this question: Why Spokane?
The cynic, also known as the lifetime Spokane resident, could argue that there's simply no better place to ponder the emptiness of the "appurtenances of successful American living" than Spokane.
But I think there's something else about Spokane that makes it a perfect place for the disappeared to reappear.
It's easy to forget just how remote this city is -- and not just because it's 280 miles from Seattle. Surrounded by basalt cliffs and boxed in by mountain ranges on all sides, Spokane is, in the words of the poet Vachel Lindsay, "a walled city" -- isolated, foreboding, difficult to get in and out of. Cities Spokane's size are typically suburbs or are strung together. But Spokane just sits here, enigmatic and alone behind its walls.
I have a friend from the Midwest who went to school on the East Coast and now works at the Seattle Times. He simply can't figure Spokane out. "Why is it there?" he asked once. "What do people do there?" (I told him we do what people do everywhere, except for less money. One striking thing about Flitcraft -- Hammett writes that he netted "$20,000 a year" at his car dealership in Spokane, or roughly as much as I made in my second year as a newspaper reporter, 60 years later.)
Visitors are often shocked to find such a thriving city here, and lifers are surprised when anyone new comes to town. There is inherent mystery in newcomers. Even now, the Spokesman-Review does a regular feature on a Spokane transplant, as if we still can't get our arms around why anyone would come here.
And frankly, it just feels like people are hiding here. No wonder legend has Butch Cassidy spending his final years living in Spokane under an assumed name, or that the federal government used to send old mafia guys here. As Hammett knew, Spokane is the perfect place to blend in and start over. In fact, sometimes I think we're all a little like Flitcraft here, going about our business and hiding our real identities, biding our time until the next beam falls.
Spokane's Jess Walter was a 2006 National Book Award finalist for The Zero and won the 2005 Edgar Allan Poe Award for his novel Citizen Vince. He is at work on a new novel as well as the screenplay for a film version of Citizen Vince.
Celebrating the Big Read
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & M & lt;/span & en, pull out the trench coats and put on the fedoras. Women, touch up your makeup, practice your huskiest Lauren Bacall voice and get out your noir-regulation cigarettes. The Big Read, a joint effort of Spokane area libraries and Fairchild Air Force Base, supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, kicks off this week for a month-long series of events commemorating Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon.
The book in the spotlight will be the subject of discussions and readers' theaters. If you don't get a chance to read the book (and we're told it's hard to get a copy from the libraries these days), you can see the film based on the book, along with other films cut from the noir cloth.
These events are free, but watch your step -- don't get tricked by a pretty woman into committing murder. That may cost you your life.
GALA KICKOFF Start things off in noir style at this reception in the Davenport Hotel, Dashiell Hammett's home during his brief stay in Spokane and the setting for Sam Spade's meeting with the elusive Flitcraft in The Maltese Falcon. Join special guest Jan Walsh, Washington's state librarian, and enjoy vintage fashions from the Women's Club, complimentary hors d'oeuvres and readings from the book, all in the restored elegance of the Davenport, on Tuesday, Feb. 19, at 5:30 pm. The Davenport Hotel, 10 S. Post St. (444-5342)
DOUBLE INDEMNITY The 1944 film starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck will be shown on Wednesday, Feb. 20, at 7 pm, at Spokane Valley Library, 12004 E. Main Ave. (893-8400). It will also be shown on Thursday, March 6, at 7 pm, at the North Spokane Library, 44 E. Hawthorne Ave. (893-8350)
THE BIG SLEEP Humphrey Bogart plays detective Philip Marlowe and Lauren Bacall plays the femme fatale in the quintessential noir piece showing on Thursday, Feb. 21, at 7 pm. North Spokane Library, 44 E. Hawthorne Ave. (893-8350) The film will also play on Wednesday, Feb. 27, at 7 pm. Spokane Valley Library, 12004 E. Main Ave. (893-8400)
THE MALTESE FALCON The film starring Humphrey Bogart based on the book by Dashiell Hammett will be shown on Tuesday, Feb. 26, at 5:30 pm. Downtown Library, 906 E. Main Ave. (444-5300) It will also be shown on Thursday, Feb. 28, at 7 pm at North Spokane Library, 44 E. Hawthorne Ave. (893-8350) and on Wednesday, March 5, at 7 pm at Spokane Valley Library, 12004 E. Main Ave. (444-5300)
THE THIRD MAN The 1949 British noir film will be shown on Tuesday, March 11, at 5:30 pm. Downtown Library, 906 E. Main Ave. (444-5300)
L.A. CONFIDENTIAL The Oscar-winning film starring Russell Crowe will be shown on Tuesday, March 18, at 5:30 pm. Downtown Library, 906 E. Main Ave. (444-5300)
YOUNG ADULT FILM NOIR FESTIVAL View the winning entries of this contest on Friday, March 14, at 7 pm. MAC, 2316 W. First Ave. (456-3931)
READER'S THEATRE: THE MALTESE FALCON The play version of the book will be performed on Friday, Feb. 29, at 7:30 pm at Gonzaga's Jundt Auditorium, 502 E. Boone Ave.; Monday, March 3, at 6:30 pm at the Cheney Library, 610 First Ave., Cheney, Wash.; Thursday, March 6, at 8 pm at the Empyrean, 154 S. Madison St.; the final performance will be Friday, March 7, at 6:30 pm at the STA Plaza, 701 W. Riverside Ave. (444-5342 or 893-8362)
TRIVIA NIGHT All things noir is the theme for this special question-and-answer night on Thursday, March 22, at 9 pm. Must be 21 and older. The Viking, 1221 N. Stevens St. (326-2942)
DISCUSSING THE MALTESE FALCON Share your views on the book written by Dashiell Hammett on Thursday, Feb. 28, at 7 pm. Moran Prairie Library, 6004 S. Regal St. (893-8340) and on Wednesday, March 12, at North Spokane Library, 44 E. Hawthorne Ave. (893-8350)
WRITE AND SELL MYSTERY Authors T. Dawn Richard and Frank Zafiro will lay down the basics on Saturday, Feb. 23, at 2 pm. Shadle Public Library, 2111 W. Wellesley Ave. (444-5342 or 893-8362)
THE FICTIONAL DETECTIVE Vic Bobb, professor of English at Whitworth University, will discuss the hard-boiled detective on Wednesday, Feb. 27, at 7 pm. North Spokane Library, 44 E. Hawthorne Ave. (893-8350)
-- COMPILED BY TAMMY MARSHALL