Dashiell Hammett’s Introduction to The Maltese Falcon

From the 1934 Modern Library Edition

If this book had been written with the help of an outline or notes or even a clearly defined plot-idea in my head I might now be able to say how it came to be written and why it took the shape it did, but all I can remember about its invention is that somewhere I had read of the peculiar rental agreement between Charles V and the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, that in a short story called “The Whosis Kid” I had failed to make the most of a situation I liked, that in another called “The Gutting of Couffignal” I had been equally unfortunate with an equally promising denouement, and that I thought I might have better luck with these two failures if I combined them with the Maltese lease in a longer story.

I can remember more clearly where I got most of my characters.

Wilmer, the boy gun-man, was picked up in Stockton, California, where I had gone hunting a window-smasher who had robbed a San Jose jewelry store. Wilmer’s original was not my window-smasher, unfortunately, but he was a fair pick-up. He was a neat small smooth-faced quiet boy of perhaps twenty-one. He said he was only seventeen, but that was probably an attempt to draw a reform school instead of a penitentiary sentence. He also said his father was a lieutenant of police in New York, which may or may not have been true, and he was serenely proud of the name the local newspapers gave him—The Midget Bandit. He had robbed a Stockton filling station the previous week. In Los Angeles a day or two later, reading a Stockton newspaper—there must be criminals who subscribe to clipping services—he had been annoyed by the description the filling-station proprietor had given of him and by the proprietor’s statement of what hewould do to that little runt if he ever laid eyes on him again. So The Midget Bandit had stolen an automobile and returned to Stockton to, in his words, stick that guy up again and see what he wanted to do about it.

Brigid O’Shaugnessy had two originals, one an artist, the other a woman who came to Pinkerton’s San Francisco office to hire an operative to discharge her housekeeper, but neither of these women was a criminal.

Dundy’s prototype I worked with in a North Carolina railroad yard; Cairo’s I picked up on a forgery charge in Pasco, Washington, in 1920; Polhaus’s was a former captain of detectives; I used to buy books from Iva’s in Spokane; Effie’s once asked me to go into the narcotic smuggling business with her in San Diego; Gutman’s was suspected—foolishly, as most people were—of being a German secret agent in Washington, D. C., in the early days of the war, and I never remember shadowing a man who bored me as much.

Spade has no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been and in their cockier moments thought they approached. For your private detective does not—or did not ten years ago when he was my colleague—want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander or client.

Dashiell Hammett                      
New York, January 24, 1934

Leave a Reply