On Don Herron’s Fritz Leiber Tour

Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz LeiberSaturday I had the pleasure to take Don Herron’s Fritz Leiber Tour. Like his more famous Dashiell Hammett Tour, Herron recreates through personal research, recollection, and local points-of-interest Leiber’s life story and the circumstances that led him to spending his last years in San Francisco.

My attendance in the tour was accidental. In October, while talking with Nicole Gluckstern after the conclusion of the Bikes to Books Tour, I mentioned what can only be called a minor parallel in my life with Fritz Leiber’s, and how I’d been meaning for years now to learn more about this prolific author. Nicole told me she was in talks with Don Herron to have him lead a one-off, by-invite-only Fritz Leiber Tour. I eagerly jumped when she asked if I wanted to attend.

Leiber’s life defies a summary in brief. The child of actor parents (his father appeared in a number of early Hollywood productions), Leiber developed an avid readership over a career of decades with his wide-ranging work—science fiction, fantasy, sword-and-sorcery, horror & the occult, and more. In addition to experience in theater and acting, Leiber was an amateur astronomer and one-time editor of Science Digest, making him the rare science fiction writer with an actual background in science.

Fritz Leiber as Dr. Arthur Waterman in Equinox: Journey into the Supernatural (1965 or 1966). Will Hart, (CC BY 2.0)

Fritz Leiber as Dr. Arthur Waterman in Equinox: Journey into the Supernatural (1965 or 1966). Still by Will Hart (CC BY 2.0)

As a child and young man, I was familiar with Leiber through his science-fiction short stories (although I don’t recall reading any of his novels). His stories were featured in “best of” collections and back issues of science fiction magazines I dug out of dusty cartons in Livermore’s public library.

Then, via Dungeons & Dragons, I learned of a swords-and-sorcery series featuring Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, a duo comprised of an oversized swordsman and a diminutive thief. When I saw this series was penned by someone named Fritz Leiber, I distinctly recall thinking, “What a coincidence—there’s a science-fiction writer with the same name.” No coincidence, it turns out. (According to Herron, Leiber coined the phrase “sword-and-sorcery.”)

A personal friend of Leiber and his second wife, Herron is a fount of history and insight into this prolific author. Much like his Hammett tour, Herron led us down and around Geary Street and the Tenderloin (names which might ring familiar to readers of Bridge Daughter). Then we boarded MUNI and trekked up to Corona Heights (and its stunning views of the city) in the Castro District. All locations have some connection to Leiber and his semi-autobiographical Our Lady of Darkness. It’s a Lovecraftian novel that takes place in 1970s San Francisco whose main character endures a battle with the bottle and grief over the death of his wife, just as Leiber was undergoing at the time.

I hope Herron considers permanently reviving the Fritz Leiber tour—but I suspect the only way that would happen is if there was a strong revival of interest in Leiber himself. Personally, I’ve already added Our Lady of Darkness to my reading list, and I plan on searching out more of his work.

About that parallel

When I earlier claimed a parallel with Leiber’s life, I should explain. I don’t mean some personal connection with the author or his work, only that Leiber wrote about an event in his life that rang similar to one of my own.

Eight years ago, after going through what can only be called a divorce immediately followed by a second relationship gone sour, my trials culminated with me busting up my shoulder in a bad accident. I severed all the tendons there, leaving me with a separated shoulder. (To this day it looks like I have “two” shoulder bones.)

I found myself bedridden for six weeks and unable to move my right arm. Day and night I consumed painkillers, delivery Chinese food, and—unwisely—whiskey. (I wrote about this episode for We Still Like‘s “Gravity” issue, a piece titled “Taylor & Redding”.) I spent my time in my apartment, alone, absorbed with Miles Davis and Cal Tjader. I spent my less stuporous hours reading whatever I could get my hands on. In particular, I located at the library a thick collection of Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op stories, which I consumed cover-to-cover.

To keep from going stir-crazy, I took long walks up and down Nob Hill and through the Tenderloin, often at odd hours of night. Due to the painkillers, sleep was varied and sporadic. Some of these walks were as late as three in the morning, when the insomnia was too much to bear.

On these walks I discovered locations and buildings named in Hammett’s work, all mere blocks from my Geary Street apartment. The old part of San Francisco is rife with short streets and dead-end alleys, too insignificant to be incidentally included in a story for local flavor, yet Hammett would feature them prominently in his work. These names did not come off a map or phone directory, these were streets intimate to Hammett, a writer obsessed with specifics and verisimilitude. Some of the Continental Op’s stories are set in Chinatown. It got so I went out of my way to seek them out.

Humphrey Bogart and "the dingus." (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Humphrey Bogart and “the dingus.” (CC BY-SA 2.0)

This led me to reread Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (which I’ve written about not just once but twice). There, in this single detective novel, I re-experienced in concentrate everything I’d experienced the prior weeks poring over the Continental Op stories. In The Maltese Falcon Sam Spade walks streets I walked every night, attends theaters down the block from my apartment, eats at restaurants still in operation. Sam Spade, living and breathing in San Francisco circa 2008. My front stoop was backdrop and stage for this classic of American literature.

It’s not merely the rush of casual literary association—similar to the rush of meeting a celebrity—that overwhelmed me. Details of the novel easily overlooked snapped into clear focus. That gunman Thursby is shacked up at Geary & Leavenworth suggests he’s residing on the hairy edge of the Tenderloin, an area rife with flophouses, while the supposedly-delicate Brigid O’Shaughnessy rooms on posh California Street. Sam Spade rides streetcars up and down Geary Street, a notion that defies imagination, as Geary in downtown San Francisco is narrower than the suburban lane I grew up riding my bike on. (The Geary streetcars were known as “Iron Monsters” and phased out in 1956 to make way for America’s love affair with automobiles.)

I’d been forced to move to Geary Street a few years earlier due to a bad break-up and the meager income I drew, living paycheck-to-paycheck tending bar. I wasn’t happy to reside a stone’s throw from the Tenderloin, infamous as San Francisco’s seediest neighborhood. It’s not—there’s a dignity in the TL easily overlooked—and Hammett’s work gave me a second sight, another way of reading my surroundings, and with it came another way to see my own circumstances. I say without qualification, Dashiell Hammett’s writings carried me through one of my lowest periods of my life.

Some time after my recovery—personal and monetary fortunes on the rise—I sat at the bar of John’s Grill in Union Square nursing a drink and waiting for my dinner to arrive. (“Jack LaLanne’s Favorite Salad”—a cold seafood salad with avocado slices, pure protein and fat.) On the back of the menu I found a newspaper article the restaurant had reprinted, “Stalking Sam Spade” written by one Fritz Leiber.

And I distinctly recall thinking, “That’s funny…there was a science fiction writer with that name.”

Stalking Sam Spade

Light reading while waiting for your steak medium-rare at John’s Grill.

After Leiber snapped out of the grief over his wife’s death and started drying up, he too rediscovered the city he lived in by reading it through Hammett’s lens. Geary Street, he wrote, is the “spine” of The Maltese Falcon, and he set out to locate its landmarks much as I’d attempted myself. Leiber was more organized about the project than I ever was, and “Stalking Sam Spade” does a much better job detailing his discoveries. Learning about San Francisco’s past through a detective novel led him to search for the history of the apartment house he lived in, culminating in his building becoming the nexus of Our Lady of Darkness.

Perhaps the allure of “rediscovering” a city through literature is not unique to San Francisco, but it’s certainly an active and avid pastime here. While some people move to San Francisco solely concerned about which address is currently beau chic or which nightspots are ripe for seeing-and-being-seen, I’ve encountered just as many who’ve found themselves ensnared in this game, the game I played those sleepless nights. It’s much as the Baker Street Irregulars “play the game” retracing Sherlock Holmes’ footprints as though he’d lived and breathed. With each step of the game comes the chill of revelation, the buzzing realization you’re walking the streets Hammett, Kerouac, Frank Norris, and others once trod daily. Each San Francisco writer is inspired in very different ways by the same city—a city that reinvents itself every generation, granting each artist who lands here a bed of fresh soil to sow and till. Some waste it, some fail to tend their seedlings. Others grow oak trees still standing today.

As Herron pointed out on our tour, Leiber got one fact wrong in “Stalking Sam Spade”: Spade’s apartment was most likely at Post & Hyde (not Geary & Hyde), the same location as Hammett’s apartment when he lived in San Francisco. A landmark plaque is on that building today, just as there is one at Burritt Alley—the location of the first murder in The Maltese Falcon—a plaque that did not exist when Leiber wrote his article.

Photo by Parker Higgins

Photo by Parker Higgins (CC0)

Another plaque that did not exist at that time is today placed on the Hotel Union at 811 Geary Street. It’s dedicated to Fritz Leiber and the book he wrote while drying up there, Our Lady of Darkness, a book inspired by his quest to re-walk the chapters of Hammett’s San Francisco and see the world anew.

Learn more about Don Herron’s tours and books at donherron.com

Twenty Writers: Another interpretation of The Flitcraft Parable (from The Maltese Falcon)

See the Introduction for more information on Twenty Writers, Twenty Books. The current list of writers and books is located at the Continuing Series page.

Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett

Earlier this year I wrote about “The Flitcraft Parable”, a story Sam Spade tells in The Maltese Falcon to Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the novel’s femme fatale. The parable is interesting for a number of reasons, but the central question that’s been attacked by readers and critics for almost a century is the purpose of its telling. Why does Sam Spade tell this odd story to O’Shaughnessy?

The story of Charles Flitcraft abandoning a secure life of money and family, only to return to a similar life in a different city, appears unrelated to the novel’s primary concern, the search for a bejeweled antique statuette. Some speculate Spade tells the story to O’Shaughnessy as a warning, that he knows she’s incapable of change and will continue lying to him, just as she’s lied in every encounter he’s had with her so far.

I don’t think the Flitcraft Parable is so simple. Before, I wrote about an academic connection I thought author Dashiell Hammett was making—that Charles Flitcraft’s assumed name, Charles Pierce, is a reference to philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce and Pragmatism, the school of thought Peirce founded. I’m the first to admit, it’s an egghead approach to a novel of murder and corruption, and one that Hammett probably didn’t expect a reader to delve terribly deeply into. That’s why I’m writing this post, a second look at the Flitcraft Parable, one that’s not so dependent on the headiness of nineteenth-century philosophy.

To be clear, I remain convinced Hammett intended to make a connection between Flitcraft and Charles Peirce’s philosophy. What I’m offering here is an interrelated interpretation of the Flitcraft Parable, an analysis that hews closer to the book’s plot and intentions without tossing out my first attempt.

If you’ve not read my first post, I’d recommend at least reading the section titled “The parable” before continuing. I’m not going to re-summarize the Flitcraft Parable here.

Warning: Spoilers ahead. In my prior post I attempted to avoid discussing the conclusion of The Maltese Falcon. It’s impossible for this post to do the same.

“The only formal problem of the story”

Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler

Dr. Samuel Johnson was not Shakespeare’s first critic, but he was arguably Shakespeare’s first preeminent critic. Hard-boiled writer Raymond Chandler holds a similar relationship to Dashiell Hammett. In Chandler’s essay “The Simple Art of Murder” (first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1944, fourteen years after the release of The Maltese Falcon), Chandler critiques and analyzes Hammett’s body of work, naming him as the one figure who represents the hard-boiled school of writing as its “ace performer.” He praises the forcefulness of Hammett’s prose and, most famously, how “Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.”

Everything Chandler observes about Hammett’s writing can be applied to the Flitcraft Parable. Spade’s sparse language when telling the parable is as direct as darts puncturing a dartboard. The parable is constructed of fleshy people, people who do things for palpable reasons, even if those reasons are mysterious to us and based on an internalized logic we may never adopt.

Then, like Dr. Johnson’s best slicing analysis of Shakespeare, Chandler makes an off-the-cuff observation of The Maltese Falcon, tossing his insight before the reader’s feet as though embarrassed something so effortless must be mentioned:

…in reading The Maltese Falcon no one concerns himself with who killed Spade’s partner, Archer (which is the only formal problem of the story), because the reader is kept thinking about something else. [Emphasis mine.]

What Chandler alludes to here is the first murder in The Maltese Falcon. In Chapter One, Miles Archer, Spade’s partner, rushes to take leggy Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s assignment for his own; the kids today would call it a “cock block.” That night—Chapter Two—Archer is found murdered. This is the “formal problem” Chandler draws attention to in-between those parentheses.

More dead bodies arrive in The Maltese Falcon, bullet-ridden corpses shot up like a stop sign outside an Alabama roadhouse, but none of the murders are truly mysterious. The moment cold-fish henchman Wilmer and his pocket .45 cannons are introduced, it’s patent the murders are his handiwork. None of the other characters are capable of it. Dandy Joel Cairo and aristocratic Gutman are too drenched in Old World genteel for the blithe butchery Wilmer is thirsty to administer. O’Shaughnessy may have claws, but her true power lies in charming men to do her killing for her. Chandler’s on the money; the only formal problem in The Maltese Falcon is the death of Archer, a murder not so easily pinned on Wilmer.

Step back and admire this for a moment. Archer is the first murder in a mystery novel—and the detective’s partner to boot—yet Archer’s corpse is all-but-forgotten five pages after Spade identifies the body. Archer’s death remains, at best, a tertiary concern for another 175 pages. With the fluidity of a street con, Hammett misdirects our attention with Istanbul intrigue, the promise of a jewel-encrusted statuette, and hoary tales of the Knights Templar. Papering over Archer’s murder is an audacious and under-appreciated maneuver on Hammett’s part, one that demonstrates the confident control he maintains throughout the book.

Spade’s credo

The mystery of Archer’s murder may all but disappear after Chapter Two, but it comes roaring back in the final chapter. Spade confronts Brigid O’Shaughnessy, whom he’d told the Flitcraft Parable to earlier in the book, and states he knows she murdered Archer, pressing her and disarming her lies until she finally confesses.

In my prior post, I concluded that the Flitcraft Parable was a kind of manifesto for Spade, a declaration that he will eke out the truth of the matter, no matter the consequences. I also noted that

…Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon in the third-person objective. Although Sam Spade is in every scene and the narrator stays close to him, we as readers are never privy to Spade’s internal thoughts. We can only guess what Spade is thinking at any moment. That’s the true mystery of The Maltese Falcon, not whodunnit, but What does Sam Spade know, and when does he know it?

Flatly, I believe Spade knows O’Shaughnessy had murdered Miles Archer when he tells her the Flitcraft Parable in Chapter Seven. I believe Spade suspects her as early as Chapter Two, when he views Archer’s body and takes a walk afterwards “thinking things over,” for all the reasons he names to O’Shaughnessy in the final pages.

If you view the Flitcraft Parable as a kind of manifesto or speech Spade is making for O’Shaughnessy, there’s one more speech Spade makes to her in the final chapter:

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. … I’m a detective and expecting me to run criminals down and then let them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go. It can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done, but it’s not the natural thing.

There’s a thin, near-invisible length of thread running between the Flitcraft Parable and the above, Spade’s credo.

The Flitcraft Parable, then, is Spade’s soft-sell to O’Shaughnessy. He’s telling her he’s a reasonable man. When Spade hears Flitcraft’s story of the falling beam, Spade agrees it seems reasonable, in it’s own way, for Flitcraft to abandon his wife and family–but he still returns to Mrs. Flitcraft to inform her what has happened to her husband.

Spade is accused of many things throughout The Maltese Falcon, some cold, some sordid, but with the Flitcraft Parable he’s quietly demonstrating to O’Shaughnessy that he will only bend so far. As he says in his credo, letting criminals go free “can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done.” He admits to her that Miles Archer “was a son of a bitch…you didn’t do me a damned bit of harm by killing him.” And then he hands her over to the police.

Would he have turned her in if she’d confessed earlier in the novel, after telling her the parable? It’s difficult to say, but the quiet way he tells it to her signals to me that he’s offering her a chance for redemption.

Chandler again, this time from his introduction to Trouble is My Business:

[The hard-boiled story] does not believe that murder will out and justice will be done—unless some very determined individual makes it his business to see that justice is done. The stories were about the men who made that happen. They were apt to be hard men, and what they did … was hard, dangerous work. It was work they could always get.

The Maltese Falcon is not a whodunnit, or a book about a statuette, or even a book about a private detective. It’s about a man who bears the weight of administering justice on-the-fly in a corrupt and mechanical world. Sam Spade holds two lives in his hands, Charles Flitcraft’s and Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s. Hard, dangerous work, work he could always get.

Twenty Writers: Dashiell Hammett, The Flitcraft Parable (from The Maltese Falcon)

See my Introduction for more information about the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” project. The current list of reviews and essays may be found at the “Twenty Writers” home page.

Another interpretation of “The Flitcraft Parable”

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell HammettDashiell Hammett was a prodigious writer, but in the most lopsided kind of way. He wrote north of a hundred short stories in less than five years, grinding out stories every month for an insatiable readership thanks to a plow horse work ethic the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 30s demanded of their writers. In 2011, a researcher going through Hammett’s papers discovered fifteen short stories that had been overlooked, all but lost. There are big-name published authors who’ve not written fifteen short stories in their career. For Dashiell Hammett and his peers in the world of pulps, fifteen short stories was getting your foot in the door.

It’s striking, then, that after all this output, Hammett was later unable to produce more than five novels, and after those did not produce anything publishable for twenty-five more years, until his death in 1961.

Like his short stories, Hammett’s five novels are of mixed quality and yet all impressive in their staying power. In Red Harvest Hammett created the “man in the middle” genre that directors Kurosawa, Sergio Leone, Walter Hill, and many others would borrow for their own uses. The man-in-the-middle story is a structure Hammett seemingly cut from whole cloth, as no one seems able to point to a true antecedent. Hammett’s genteel, Fitzgeraldean The Thin Man spawned a slew of successful Hollywood pictures. Its form—a fashionable society couple solving murders between martinis and canapés—may sound dated, but judging from the success of Downton Abbey, I bet it could stage a comeback at a moment’s notice. The Glass Key‘s story of a political boss’ right-hand man smashing down rivals rings familiar to any fan of the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing (although Coen Brothers’ fans should also read James Cain’s mostly-overlooked Love’s Lovely Counterfeit for another important influence). Hammett’s books echo in all manner of 20th century entertainment, here and abroad.

Then there’s The Maltese Falcon, the most widely-known novel in the bunch. Like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, its title alone is a signifier: fog-soaked San Francisco, the statuette of a solemn stiff-winged black bird, back-alley shootings and mysterious packages arriving by ship from Hong Kong—John Huston knew a great novel when he read it, and he knew better than to monkey with a winning story. If you view the movie immediately after reading the novel, you’ll wonder if there was even a shooting script. Huston’s adaptation hews that closely to the book.

One omission in Huston’s adaptation of The Maltese Falcon is a brief story Sam Spade tells to Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the femme fatale. Spade’s story has nothing to do with finding the Falcon, nothing to do with the motley assortment of characters searching for it up and down the streets of San Francisco, nothing really to do with anything in the novel. The story is a mystery all right, but not in its elements of detection, which it has none of, but what the story means and why Spade is telling it to O’Shaughnessy.

The Maltese Falcon is a model of brisk pacing and efficient writing, a novel of sensation and suspense, and so the digression stands out all the more for it. Spade’s brief tale, two and a half pages long, is one of the most mysterious and puzzling aspects of The Maltese Falcon. Although never referred to as such in the book, it has become known as The Flitcraft Parable.

The parable

Spade tells Brigid O’Shaughnessy of a well-to-do family man in Tacoma, Washington named Flitcraft. In 1922 Flitcraft left his office for lunch and never returned, missing the four o’clock tee-off he’d reserved a mere half-hour before. He also abandoned a good family and $200,000 in the bank, leaving behind no indication of another woman in his life, or any kind of double-life at all. As Spade says about Flitcraft’s disappearance, in what may be the absolute best of Hammett’s prose:

“He went like that,” Spade said, “like a fist when you open your hand.”

Five years after Flitcraft had vanished, Spade was working for one of the larger detective agencies in Seattle when

Mrs. Flitcraft came in and told us somebody had seen a man in Spokane who looked a lot like her husband. I went over there. It was Flitcraft all right. He had been living in Spokane for a couple of years as Charles—that was his first name—Pierce. He had an automobile business…a wife, a baby son, owned his home in a Spokane suburb, and usually got away to play golf after four in the afternoon during the season.

Although not told in-scene, it’s easy to envision Spade’s visit to Flitcraft not so much as a confrontation but a tense social visit. For a tough-guy book, there are no threats or intimidation in The Flitcraft Parable, no car chase or running down dark streets with revolvers unholstered. The parable reads like Flitcraft and Spade were drinking coffee while discussing the situation. But it is tense, as Flitcraft must attempt to explain the logic behind his actions, if any.

After all, what has really changed for Flitcraft? Once again he holds an office job, has a wife and child, a house, even that four o’clock tee-off, all in Spokane, a mere three hundred miles away from a near-identical life in Tacoma.

What precipitated his flight? While going to lunch that day in 1922, Flitcraft passed a high-rise construction site:

“A beam or something fell eight or ten stories down and smacked the sidewalk alongside him. It brushed pretty close to him, but didn’t touch him, though a piece of the sidewalk was chipped off and flew up and hit his cheek. … He felt like somebody has taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.”

Realizing that his life had been randomly spared, Flitcraft decides to randomly upend his life. Like the prince Buddha shedding his family and power and worldly possessions, Flitcraft abandoned his comforts to wander the world. He drifted until he wound up in Spokane, a four-hour drive from his family, and settled into a situation indiscernible from his original:

“He wasn’t sorry for what he had done. It seemed reasonable enough to him. I don’t think he even knew he had settled back naturally into the same groove 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.”

The story ends there. Unimpressed, Brigid O’Shaughnessy shrugs off the parable and changes the subject. To the casual reader it appears as a digression from the thrilling search for the Falcon, and not a particularly relevant digression at that. What’s more, Flitcraft’s explanation does not satisfy. There must be more to his story, but Flitcraft is not mentioned again in the novel.

One cannot imagine The Flitcraft Parable finding a place in pulps like Black Mask, magazines that instructed their writers “When in doubt, throw a dead body at ’em.” No gun is leveled, no whiskey is poured, no dame is saved. In The Maltese Falcon Dashiell Hammett crafted the most iconic private detective novel ever, the singular representation of an entire form, and yet in it he wrote the most unorthodox story of detection ever.

Charles Flitcraft

Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett

It can be overemphasized that Hammett was, prior to taking up the pen, a private detective. Too often his experience as a Pinkerton agent is treated as a trump card by his proponents, proof that Hammett’s work is authentic compared to the detective fiction of “amateur” hardboiled writers.

It’s important to state: The Maltese Falcon is not a work of hard realism. Hammett understood how to give people what they wanted to read, hence his success in the pages of Black Mask. He also had a preternatural gift of vivid and bold writing. Raymond Chandler asserted Hammett did “over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.” That’s why, unlike most of his peers at Black Mask, Hammett is still studied and marveled over today.

But Hammett was a private eye and he knew the ins and outs of that profession. He knew that such work did not always involve reaching for one’s revolver to get answers. He knew sitting down and talking frankly will sometimes get all the information one requires. No hot lights, no pounding on the desk, no good-cop/bad-cop.

Look again at the subdued language when Spade is hired by Flitcraft’s wife:

Mrs. Flitcraft came in and told us somebody had seen a man in Spokane who looked a lot like her husband. I went over there. It was Flitcraft, all right.

No leggy femme fatale arriving at the detective’s office wearing a mourning veil with a slit up her dress. Mrs. Flitcraft’s entrance has all the dramatic effect of going to the phone company to request a change in service. The weary acknowledgement—”It was Flitcraft, all right”—indicates Spade knew all along it would be the same man, although his reaction later tells us he’d never seen a man skip town for quite the same reasons as Flitcraft’s. The subdued language is echoed in Flitcraft’s tepid attempt to explain those reasons to Spade: “He had never told anybody his story before…He tried now.” This is not a parable of a man making a considered choice. Flitcraft up and left with little self-examination at all, compelled, it seems, by cosmic forces beyond our ken.

Passivity is the standard in The Flitcraft Parable. Even Mrs. Flitcraft shrugs and lets it go when told by Spade of Flitcraft’s bigamy:

“She didn’t want any scandal, and, after the trick he had played on her—the way she looked at it—she didn’t want him. So they were divorced on the quiet and everything was swell all around.”

The parable is built from the elements of scandal and recklessness and infidelity, but like tightening your grip on bread dough, Hammett lets the gooey salaciousness squeeze out and fall away. The three characters—Spade, Flitcraft, and his wife—simply give in to what has happened without complaint or fuss.

It’s not just an usual detective story, it’s an unusual story, no qualifier required. Hammett offers no hero or victim to identify with, no epiphanic moment, and no moral at the end, as most parables would conclude with. The tale has all the trappings of a Cheever story, but it never sneers down on the suburban way of life Flitcraft abandons and returns to. (Keep in mind that Hammett was an urban sophisticate in this period and sympathetic to the Communist Party and socialist movements; he would maintain strong leftist beliefs the rest of his life.) Flitcraft’s escape from domesticity to male freedom also sounds like the setup for an Updike novel, but again, the escape is not truly escape for Flitcraft, just as his return to Spokane is not a return to domestic imprisonment.

For a writer whose stock-and-trade is hot lead and wisecracking gangsters, Hammett tells The Flitcraft Parable with light, oblique touches. One is left with a sense that the falling construction beam shook up the cosmos and dislodged something vital, propelling Flitcraft out into the world. By the time Flitcraft’s orbit returned to domesticity in Spokane, that dislodged piece had slipped back into place and was wedged in tight. The dust settles and little has changed.

Charles Peirce

An important detail in the parable is Flitcraft’s assumed name when he settles in Spokane: Charles Pierce. This is most likely a reference to the American philosopher and polymath Charles Sanders Peirce (pronounced “purse”), the father of Pragmatism and one of the great thinkers of the 19th century. There is indirect evidence that Hammett knew well of Peirce’s work. In a letter to his publisher, Hammett describes The Maltese Falcon as the most “philosophical” work he’d produced to date. Peirce’s essays were published in popular magazines and his books were widely read and studied. The question then is why Hammett would namedrop one of the most important philosophers of the prior 100 years into a detective story about locating an old statuette.

Charles Sanders Peirce

Charles Sanders Peirce

A clue may lie in Peirce’s work in philosophy. Peirce’s Pragmatism was multifaceted, but one of its concerns was the relationship between doubt, belief, and truth. Peirce was also fascinated with randomness and how it shaped history.

Peirce argued that the universe is not entirely deterministic, that an element of chaos exists, and that this chaos is necessary for variations to form and evolve. He dubbed his theory Tychism. Peirce saw Darwinism as just one example of Tychism at work. Peirce didn’t say that the universe is pure randomness, just that by the injection of a small amount of uncertainty—call it a seed of chaos—variations and change sprung forth, and from there true growth.

Regarding doubt, belief, and truth, Peirce expressed the role of imagination on the search for truth in an 1878 essay he wrote for Popular Science, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear”:

…[Doubt] stimulates the mind to an activity which may be slight or energetic, calm or turbulent. Images pass rapidly through consciousness, one incessantly melting into another, until at last, when all is over—it may be in a fraction of a second, in an hour, or after long years—we find ourselves decided as to how we should act under such circumstances as those which occasioned our hesitation. In other words, we have attained belief.

According to Peirce, doubt is the key component to fruitful inquiry. Not just garden-variety doubt (as in “I doubt I can make it to the party in time”) but the kind of doubt that “stimulates the mind to an activity.” The stimulating doubt forces the mind to engage with the question and come up with an alternative that we believe is the truth. Our decision on how one would act is, in effect, how one did act—”in other words, we have attained belief.”

Putting it all together, the sound of the steel beam hitting the sidewalk, the fleck of concrete striking Flitcraft in the cheek and scarring him (“He rubbed it with his finger—well, affectionately—when he told me about it”), the sudden question of why he had not been killed: This random accident and chance survival introduced a seed of doubt to Flitcraft’s ordered, static life. It caused him to consider an alternate reality—a reality without his family or fortune. When he could imagine his life without them, it was just a few more steps to actualize that idea. Doubt stimulates belief.

Flitcraft’s snap decision seems monumental from our external viewpoint, but for him it was nothing more than a slight shift: “Life could be ended for him at random by a falling beam: he would change his life at random by simply going away.” Flitcraft goes out of his way to point out to Spade the “reasonableness” of his decision. Stepping back, maybe it does seem reasonable. It was also unsustainable—but no matter.

The reason for the telling

While Spade tells the parable, he and O’Shaughnessy are waiting for Joel Cairo to join them. Brigid O’Shaugnessy has had dealings with Cairo in the past and has come to Spade for protection. But O’Shaughnessy has lied to Spade already (in the novel, her first words to him are lies) and he expects her to lie again. This is the commonly offered reason for Spade telling her the parable: Spade is indirectly informing O’Shaughnessy that he does not expect her deceit to end. Like Flitcraft, the thinking goes, she too will not change.

It seems too straightforward a decode for me. Sam Spade is not one for long-winded oratories. It would be much more in character for him to say, “You’ve lied to me before and you’ll lie to me again.” Done and done. In fact, he does tell her that elsewhere in the book. There’s no reason for him to cloak it in a parable about a man in Spokane.

It’s worth noting that Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon in the third-person objective. Although Sam Spade is in every scene and the narrator stays close to him, we as readers are never privy to Spade’s internal thoughts. We can only guess what Spade is thinking at any moment. That’s the true mystery of The Maltese Falcon, not whodunnit, but What does Sam Spade know, and when does he know it? When it comes to Brigid O’Shaughnessy, I think Sam Spade has her pretty well figured out, much like he knew he would find Flitcraft when he traveled to Spokane. (“It was Flitcraft all right.”) Spade will work with O’Shaughnessy, but only to find the Falcon and to dig out the truth about her…even if that truth confirms what he already suspects.

I also refuse to believe that The Flitcraft Parable is about a man who does not change. Flitcraft’s beliefs are challenged by the chance accident of the falling beam. His travels—his search for some sort of truth—lead him back to his original beliefs. That does not mean his travels were wasted. Flitcraft has no regrets for what he did. His travels—his inquiry—made him a different man, even if he seems to be the same man as before, which he is not.

Spade uses The Flitcraft Parable to issue a statement, a personal credo. He’s saying there is a truth out there and it’s worth looking for it, even if you wind up confirming what you already knew. What’s more, randomness and chance stir the pot, make things happen, creates possibilities. Spade is not Sherlock Holmes. He does not see the world as orderly deductions, one fact leading unquestionably to another. Spade gambles, he take risks, he bluffs. (He’s named after a suit of cards, after all.) Later in the novel an adversary compliments Spade: “There’s never telling what you’ll do or say next, except that it’s bound to be something astonishing.” It’s as concise an observation as any written about Sam Spade.

Charles Sanders Peirce wrote “Do not block the way of inquiry.” Is there a more precise statement of the worldview of Sam Spade? Or, for that matter, the detective novel?

Or of Dashiell Hammett, a man whose left-wing beliefs led to his imprisonment at the age of 55, assigned the duty of cleaning toilets, all for believing that doubt and inquiry could lead to a better society?

November 13, 2015: Check out “Another interpretation of ‘The Flitcraft Parable'”