A McGuffin For The Age Of The Anti-Hero

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Fiction tends to wear its age either poorly, as does science fiction predicated on the assumption that by the 1990s we’d have achieved faster-than-light space travel and racial harmony — or well, as is the case of the best of hard-boiled detective fiction which grows over the years to be more representational of its era, more evocative and less self-conscious.

And then there’s the rare third way of novels that would be arguably better books if they were written today, like The Maltese Falcon.

Dashiell Hammett produced in 1931 a book that, when initially serialized in the Mask, probably struck readers as a particularly good and remarkably original example of the genre and I’m guessing when I say that most probably didn’t realize just how much harder the author had to work to so quietly and thoroughly evolve the medium.

It could be argued that the anti-hero dates back to at least Don Quixote — so some 400 years before Sam Spade — and the concept is probably appreciably older than that but as a staple of American fiction it was unheard of before the 50s. And this was the uniqueness of the challenge facing Hammett — Spade’s no anti-hero but to make the revolutionary plot work the reader needs to be convinced that’s exactly what he is twenty years before anyone’s heard of such a thing.

Hammett wasn’t inventing the anti-hero, he was moving the utility of misdirection in detective fiction onto a whole new plane. He was preoccupying the reader with a McGuffin and a colorful cast of self-serving characters and a multi-threaded plot about the Knights Templar and Spanish Kings when the real crime takes place on page 11. And to pull it off he had to convincingly present his main character, who would have been universally expected to be law-abiding and moral and chivalrous, as corrupt and mercenary and lascivious.

And he certainly succeeded but a lot of readers probably instinctively saw justice coming, one way or the other. The plot twist as it would be received in the context of today’s books and movies about happy and successful crooks and murderers is that the main character is in fact strictly, selflessly and, indeed, heroically moral.

Writing today, Hammett wouldn’t have to work quite so hard to convince us that Spade is looking out for his own best interests and a modern reader has the luxury of focusing on just how blithely cold-blooded the detective apparently is as he removes his partner’s name from the door the day after his brutal murder and scoffs at the man’s widow. None of that would strike us as strange or suspicious or misleading, all of which it turns out to be, so it would be merely entertaining and we’d fall much more easily for the trick than would have Hammett’s initial audience.

So apart from the obvious handicap of being universal common knowledge the plot twist at the end of the Maltese Falcon works better now than it did in its own day.

Then or now or a hundred years from now The Maltese Falcon will always have been the first detective book to present a narrative that’s mostly one extended charade meant to distract the reader and, for that matter, most of the characters, from the real story, and to teach us to love being fooled.
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