Spade had 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 what quite a few of them 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, 1934
One of the few parts of Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon that did not make it into John Huston’s otherwise faithful film is a four-page story Sam Spade recounts about a man he once hunted named Charles Flitcraft, “who left his real estate office, in Tacoma, to go to luncheon one day and never returned.” In the Hammett world, this passage is often called the Flitcraft Parable, and it has a full scholarly life of its own, as if the anecdote poses a question about the universe. While some have found in it clues to a philosopher of flux, it has at least as much to do with its author’s life as with his hero’s. In Scott Frank’s new series on AMC, Monsieur Spade, Sam has undergone a Flitcraftian relocation of his own, a “hard and shifty fellow” from wide open San Francisco ending up years later in the wine country of the south of France.
In The Maltese Falcon, the Flitcraft story is told by Sam to his client and lover Brigid O’Shaughnessy in his Post Street room, the very apartment Dashiell Hammett inhabited while writing the book. The story he tells her is in fact about as much as we learn of Sam’s earlier life, apart from an unwise past affair with his partner’s wife. Hired by Mrs. Flitcraft to find her vanished husband, Spade locates him in Spokane in 1927, when Flitcraft is eager to explain what happened five years before:
“Going to lunch he passed an office building that was being put up—just the skeleton. 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 was scared stiff of course, he said, but he was more shocked than really frightened. He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.”
The life he had known before going to lunch was “a clean orderly sane responsible affair” in which good people were rewarded with beautiful families and gulf club memberships. Now a falling beam had shown him that even good men lived “only while blind chance spared them.” A change came over him, Spade tells Brigid, “like a fist when you open your hand.”
The close call spurs Flitcraft to quickly reorder his life to the new reality. He leaves his family and job in one city and ends up in another, where Spade tracks him down and finds he has outwardly recreated his old existence, with a new job, name, and family. But that is not how it feels to Flitcraft, who is unrepentant about the adjustments he felt compelled to make. He only worries that Spade won’t understand him. “I got it all right,” Spade says to Brigid O’Shaughnessy, “but Mrs. Flitcraft never did. She thought it was silly. Maybe it was.” The story is also mysterious for how Spade accepts Flitcraft’s explanation, and simply reports back to the client instead of hauling him by his ear back to Seattle. Whatever else is going on in this story that Spade tells to kill time waiting for Joel Cairo to return his call, Hammett is also working out a puzzle of his own.
Parable or not, the story of Charles Flitcraft is rooted in Hammett’s own life and need to amuse himself, like much of his writing. Having nearly died of tuberculosis contracted in the army in 1918, he had convalesced with the disease in Tacoma, the town Flitcraft flees after his own near-death experience, and he worked as a Pinkerton in the cities (San Francisco, Spokane) in which Flitcraft locates, as well as in Seattle, where Spade is working at the time of the case. In each of these agency offices, operatives would have consulted an “A.J. Flitcraft Life Insurance” manual for its actuarial tables, as Pinkerton’s had a number of large insurance clients. As he wrote The Maltese Falcon, Hammett had been living apart from his own family off and on for several years, and was considering making the separation complete by moving three thousand miles away to New York.
Hammett had moved into his San Francisco studio at 891 Post Street on orders to shield his young children from his TB, and, once living apart, found the solitude and freedom that, among other things, allowed him to become a novelist. (The same apartment, Bill Arney and Don Herron have shown, in which Sam Spade lives.) As he finished the manuscript for The Maltese Falcon, Hammett had survived a full decade with a disease that might have killed him at any time, an experience that had certainly lifted the lid off life and shown him the works. Hammett, a man poised between lives, is talking to himself through his creation. If you sit in the studio at 891 Post, you can imagine Hammett writing and Sam reading the Flitcraft tale for Brigid, who listens in the padded rocking chair.
In Monsieur Spade, Brigid O’Shaughnessy is the main link between Sam’s old life in San Francisco and his new one in France, having bought him his plane ticket for a job using some very sketchy money. He arrives there in 1955. I was prepared to sneer at the AMC show, upon first hearing about its premise two years ago, but admired its style from its earliest scenes, when, during a rainstorm, you see the distaste on Sam’s face as he’s forced to look into the stalled engine of his French automobile. Clive Owen does not look much more like Hammett’s conception of Spade than Bogart did. Neither looks “rather pleasantly like a blond satan.” But that doesn’t keep Owen from willing the shamus into being, masking his Bondian looks with world-weariness and gradually acquiring some tough-guy French to use at the market.
The south of France is an excellent place to lose yourself and also to be a criminal. The Belgian writer Georges Simenon, a fan of Hammett and vice versa, produced his own Flitcraftian tale about a French businessman, Norbert Monde, in a non-Magritte novel of 1945, Monsieur Monde Vanishes. Monde’s trigger is more a kind of mid-life malaise than a shock to the system from a falling beam. But one morning he leaves his domestic and business affairs in Paris for the Riviera, where he disappears for a time into the riffraff, and finds his ex-wife, now an addict.
The Flitcraft tale remains the great unfilmed Spade story with a Hammett pedigree. As Scott Frank’s production company is called Flitcraft, perhaps it will come to pass, especially as Charles Flitcraft was missing for five years, in which time much can dramatically happen. In Monsieur Spade, after trouble finally finds Sam in the paradise where he has landed, his response is measured but firm: “You have disturbed my tranquility.” At the close of the first episode, when he witnesses the aftermath of an unspeakable crime in a French convent, his eyes change as he studies the carnage and the hard and shifty fellow comes reluctantly back to life.