I went to the Library of Congress for the "Maltese Falcon at 75" program on February 12, 2005. They've definitely changed the streets behind the Madison building, blocking off different side streets in the name of added security. Finding the Montpelier Room took some doing, especially with so much of the building closed down for the night. I didn't remember it being that big of a room, but we nearly filled it.
The local chapter of the Mystery Writers of America co-sponsored the event with the Library of Congress, so the local writers were in attendance. I met a few of them when I was unfashionably early. It was interesting hearing their writing and publishing woes. They shuffled short stories around various publishers and trying to please even one of them.
One gentleman, Peter Abresch, writes a series of "elderhostel" cozies. He was then searching for a new publisher for his series, which sounded like a common refrain among the ones I met. Abresch demonstrated the hazards of publishing a series. Once set in his pattern, he is loathe to break from it. Another writer suggested changing the lead point of view, but he stubbornly refused to consider it as a viable option.
I did feel like the youngest person in attendance. I don’t know whether it’s a genre thing or just a reflection on the appeal of Dashiell Hammett and his books.
An exhibit was set up on the table beside the podium with an early reprint edition of Maltese Falcon and a plaster replica of the infamous black bird. The latter was actually a prop used in the Huston film. Apparently the original falcon prop was made of lead and weighed a ton. Humphrey Bogart complained about the weight, so they created several plaster versions. Warner Brothers donated this one to the Library of Congress’ Copyright Office with the condition that it was put on display. Given that Hammett had his own struggles over copyright with Warner Brothers, I guess both items make appropriate and somewhat ironic choices to be displayed.
The Copyright Office wasn’t the only place to find Hammett material tucked away. The Manuscript Reading Room has an archive on the Pinkerton detective agency. Hammett worked for Pinkertons when he was younger. The Rare Book room has one of only two extant complete runs of "Black Mask" magazine. The other one is in private hands and maybe on sale soon in the six figures! "Black Mask" published a good chunk of Hammett’s work, including the serialized version of the Maltese Falcon.
The speaker was Richard Layman who has written a number of books on Dashiell Hammett. He was also the guest editor on the journal "Clues" for its theme issue. Copies were available at the reception afterwards. Layman clearly knew his subject quite well. He expounded on the biographical background and how it impacted the Falcon's creation, Hammett's health and habits and possible knowledge. For a high school dropout, Hammett sounded like he really was quite a character, reading pretty extensively. He talked about Hammett's career as a mystery reviewer for "Saturday Review of Literature", holding his own against his better educated peers. With his acerbic comments, you could almost see where Nick Charles got his repartee.
Layman also talked about the different versions of the "Maltese Falcon", including the three different movies. The first version in 1931 is supposed to be a more faithful rendition of the book, while the second "Satan Met a Lady" should be really forgotten. The movie studio tried to turn "Maltese Falcon" into a romantic comedy like "Thin Man". There’s very little about “Maltese Falcon” that is romantic, “stuff that dreams are made of” notwithstanding. The pre-code "Maltese Falcon" apparently plays up the sexier side of Spade's relationships with the women in his life. It might make an interesting comparison someday. I’d especially like to see a different Brigid. And there's some feeling that Mary Astor was cast as the duplicitous Brigid O'Shaughnessy because of her messy off-screen life. Her diary was published, revealing all the sorts of juicy details about her love life. I thought she was the weakest casting choice of the Huston version.
Interestingly, there is a literary mystery of sorts related to the Falcon's writing, namely Hammett's sources on the Crusades and Hospitalers and the falcon tribute. The information he provides is fairly accurate and apparently cites all sorts of sources, including one that was originally in mediaeval French. Since Hammett's knowledge was wide, but not that extensive, Layman suspects there is a secondary source he hasn't uncovered yet.
As a writer myself, I was a little flabbergasted by Hammett's stated writing goals of 5000 words a day. I could pull off 3000 words once in a blue moon, but I’d be totally dead afterwards. I can’t imagine doing that every day on a manual typewriter. That would drive anyone to drink.
On the character of Sam Spade, Hammett comments in a later introduction to the "Maltese Falcon" that he was a dream man. He was the sort of private detective they wished they could be and sometimes thought they were. However, in the best moment of the event, Layman showed us a picture of Hammett and read aloud the first paragraph of Falcon, describing Sam Spade, the "blond Satan". You could see the resemblance very easily. (I’ve yet to find that photograph online. I might have to scan the one I have.) On the other hand, Hammett was supposedly 6"1", 120 lbs, so you could also see where the “thin man” reference comes from.
I was amused at the quote given about Lillian Hellman’s tendency to expound on the truth. "Everything she writes is a lie, even the 'an's and the 'the's." She didn’t come off particularly well in the talk.
The questions and answers afterwards ranged on different topics, from Hammett's communist leanings to his missing short stories. Most of those will be collected in an edition called "Lost Stories" published in September 2005.
The entire program was webcast on the Library of Congress website. You'll need Real Player in order to view it correctly.