First a little something on Dashiell Hammett. He was an actual detective for the famous Pinkerton National Detective Agency and he was known as “Sam” since his real first name was Samuel. I didn’t know that until now. What’s important about that is that his famous detective from his great novel, The Maltese Falcon, was named Sam Spade, so there’s an element of autobiography in his works. He only wrote five novels, but they are among the best of the hardboiled detective genre. I’m not sure if he actually invented the genre, but he was there at the beginning and he was among its best expounders. According to Wikipedia, the NY Times Obituary called Hammett "the dean of the... 'hard-boiled' school of detective fiction.”
Four other things stand out about him. He contacted tuberculosis while serving in WWI, and it plagued him throughout his life. It may have been part of the reason he stopped writing novels at the age of forty. The second thing is that he was not just a left-wing activist, but an ardent communist. I don’t think it permeated his works, but it certainly affected his career. He was blacklisted in the 1950s, and that also probably curtailed his output. Third, he was a heavy drinker and smoker, and that only exacerbated his poor health. Fourth, he had a long relationship with the American playwright, Lillian Hellman, who took care of him in his final years.
In my comment to Kelly I said that “Who Killed Bob Teal?” is not a great work. It’s a fun work. The work she should most definitely read if she wants to read Hammett at his most creative is The Maltese Falcon. I consider The Maltese Falcon not just a detective novel, but a great novel outside of genre constraints. You can find it at any public library. Hammett did not really have the space in this short story to develop the characters to their fullest. Part of what makes The Maltese Falcon so great is the distinct characterizations. Another is the personal code that Sam Spade develops in making it through a chaotic and unpredictable world. You’ve probably seen the movie based on thenovel, starring Humphrey Bogart. The movie pretty much tracks with the novel, but what you miss with the movie is Hammett’s fine writing, of which I’ll give you an example from the short story. See the movie if you haven’t, but read the novel first. One other thing on The Maltese Falcon. I once participated in a book discussion of it and a few of the women in the book group felt it was extremely sexist. I think they were anticipating Agatha Christie, and no there are very hard edges to hardboiled detective stories. So be forewarned on that, but I don’t personally consider it all that sexist for its time.
Let’s get to the story. “Who killed Bob Teal?’ actually starts in a similar fashion to The Maltese Falcon. A detective at the agency while shadowing a person for a client is murdered. In this case it’s Bob Teal. Here is the opening scene:
“Teal was killed last night.”
The Old Man—the Continental Detective Agency’s San Francisco manager — spoke without looking at me. His voice was as mild as his smile, and gave no indication of the turmoil that was seething in his mind.
If I kept quiet, waiting for the Old Man to go on, it wasn’t because the news didn’t mean anything to me. I had been fond of Bob Teal — we all had. He had come to the Agency fresh from college two years before; and if ever a man had the makings of a crack detective in him, this slender, broad-shouldered lad had. Two years is little enough time in which to pick up the first principles of sleuthing, but Bob Teal, with his quick eye, cool nerve, balanced head, and whole-hearted interest in the work, was already well along the way to expertness. I had an almost fatherly interest in him, since I had given him most of his early training.
The Old Man didn’t look at me as he went on. He was talking to the open window at his elbow.
“He was shot with a thirty-two, twice, through the heart. He was shot behind a row of signboards on the vacant lot on the northwest corner of Hyde and Eddy Streets, at about ten last night. His body was found by a patrolman a little after eleven. The gun was found about fifteen feet away. I have seen him and I have gone over the ground myself. The rain last night wiped out any leads the ground may have held, but from the condition of Teal’s clothing and the position in which he was found, I would say that there was no struggle, and that he was shot where he was found, and not carried there afterward. He was lying behind the signboards, about thirty feet from the sidewalk, and his hands were empty. The gun was held close enough to him to singe the breast of his coat. Apparently no one either saw or heard the shooting. The rain and wind would have kept pedestrians off the street, and would have deadened the reports of a thirty-two, which are not especially loud, anyway.”
Notice the contrast between the internal, unspoken reaction of the detective first person narrator—the story’s unnamed central character—and the old manager’s external stoicism. The detective speaks of his emotional connection to Teal, even stating that he felt “fatherly” to the young man. The detective writes in syntactically organized sentences. The emotions are complex and the language reflects it. The manager on the other hand speaks in short declarative sentences by just laying out the facts, one by one, unorganized and empirical. Internally he might be “seething” with “turmoil” but he doesn’t show it. Internally there are emotions. Externally there are only facts and you don’t reveal your vulnerability to them.
Teal was shadowing a man named Whitacre, who was a business partner to a man named Ogburn. Ogburn suspected that Whitacre was stealing off him and so hired the Agency to investigate Whitacre’s doings. Here is the narrator detective going to Ogbrun’s office to tell him what happened to Teal and scrutinize the partner’s reaction.
A stenographer ushered me into a tastefully furnished office, where Ogburn sat at a desk signing mail. He offered me a chair. I introduced myself to him, a medium-sized man of perhaps thirty-five, with sleek brown hair and the cleft chin that is associated in my mind with orators, lawyers, and salesmen.
“Oh, yes!” he said, pushing aside the mail, his mobile, intelligent face lighting up. “Has Mr. Teal found anything?”
“Mr. Teal was shot and killed last night.”
He looked at me blankly for a moment out of wide brown eyes, and then repeated: “Killed?”
“Yes,” I replied, and told him what little I knew about it.
“You don’t think —” he began when I had finished, and then stopped. “You don’t think Herb would have done that?”
“What do you think?”
“I don’t think Herb would commit murder! He’s been jumpy the last few days, and I was beginning to think he suspected I had discovered his thefts, but I don’t believe he would have gone that far, even if he knew Mr. Teal was following him. I honestly don’t!”
“Suppose,” I suggested, “that sometime yesterday Teal found where he had put the stolen money, and then Whitacre learned that Teal knew it. Don’t you think that under those circumstances Whitacre might have killed him?”
“Perhaps,” he said slowly, “but I’d hate to think so. In a moment of panic Herb might — but I really don’t think he would.”
“When did you see him last?”
“Yesterday. We were here in the office together most of the day. He left for home a few minutes before six. But I talked to him over the phone later. He called me up at home at a little after seven, and said he was coming down to see me, wanted to tell me something. I thought he was going to confess his dishonesty, and that maybe we would be able to straighten out this miserable affair. His wife called up at about ten. She wanted him to bring something from downtown when he went home, but of course he was not there. I stayed in all evening waiting for him, but he didn’t —”
He stuttered, stopped talking, and his face drained white.
“My God, I’m wiped out!” he said faintly, as if the thought of his own position had just come to him. “Herb gone, money gone, three years’ work gone for nothing! And I’m legally responsible for every cent he stole. God!”
He looked at me with eyes that pleaded for contradiction, but I couldn’t do anything except assure him that everything possible would be done to find both Whitacre and the money. I left him trying frantically to get his attorney on the telephone.
Then the detective decides to interrogate Whitacre’s wife. Entering her house he meets a police detective, George Dean, there for the same reason, and so they interrogate her together.
I arrived in the vestibule as Dean pressed Whitacre’s bell-button.
“Hello,” I said. “You in on this?”
“Uh-huh. What d’you know?”
“Nothing. I just got it.”
The front door clicked open, and we went together up to the Whitacres’ apartment on the third floor. A plump, blond woman in a light blue house-dress opened the apartment door. She was rather pretty in a thick-featured, stolid way.
“Mrs. Whitacre?” Dean inquired.
“Is Mr. Whitacre in?”
“No. He went to Los Angeles this morning,” she said, and her face was truthful.
“Know where we can get in touch with him there?”
“Perhaps at the Ambassador, but I think he’ll be back by tomorrow or the next day.”
Dean showed her his badge.
“We want to ask you a few questions,” he told her, and with no appearance of astonishment she opened the door wide for us to enter. She led us into a blue and cream living-room where we found a chair apiece. She sat facing us on a big blue settle.
“Where was your husband last night?” Dean asked.
“Home. Why?” Her round blue eyes were faintly curious.
“Home all night?”
“Yes, it was a rotten rainy night. Why?” She looked from Dean to me.
Dean’s glance met mine, and I nodded an answer to the question that I read there.
“Mrs. Whitacre,” he said bluntly, “I have a warrant for your husband’s arrest.”
“A warrant? For what?”
“Murder?” It was a stifled scream.
“Exactly, an’ last night.”
“But —but I told you he was —”
“And Ogburn told me,” I interrupted, leaning forward, “that you called up his apartment last night, asking if your husband was there.”
She looked at me blankly for a dozen seconds, and then she laughed, the clear laugh of one who has been the victim of some slight joke.
“You win,” she said, and there was neither shame nor humiliation in either face or voice. “Now listen” — the amusement had left her — “I don’t know what Herb has done, or how I stand, and I oughtn’t to talk until I see a lawyer. But I like to dodge all the trouble I can. If you folks will tell me what’s what, on your word of honour, I’ll maybe tell you what I know, if anything. What I mean is, if talking will make things any easier for me, if you can show me it will, maybe I’ll talk — provided I know anything.”
That seemed fair enough, if a little surprising. Apparently this plump woman who could lie with every semblance of candour, and laugh when she was tripped up, wasn’t interested in anything much beyond her own comfort.
“You tell it,” Dean said to me.
I shot it out all in a lump.
“Your husband had been cooking the books for some time, and got into his partner for something like two hundred thousand dollars before Ogburn got wise to it. Then he had your husband shadowed, trying to find the money. Last night your husband took the man who was shadowing him over on a lot and shot him.”
Her face puckered thoughtfully. Mechanically she reached for a package of popular-brand cigarettes that lay on a table behind the settle, and proffered them to Dean and me. We shook our heads. She put a cigarette in her mouth, scratched a match on the sole of her slipper, lit the cigarette, and stared at the burning end. Finally she shrugged, her face cleared, and she looked up at us.
“I’m going to talk,” she said. “Never got any of the money, and I’d be a chump to make a goat of myself for Herb. He was all right, but if he’s run out and left me flat, there’s no use of me making a lot of trouble for myself over it. Here goes: I’m not Mrs. Whitacre, except on the register. My name is Mae Landis. Maybe there is a real Mrs. Whitacre, and maybe not. I don’t know. Herb and I have been living together here for over a year.
What a fine little scene and so typical of Hammett. What you see is an unbalanced world. First she says her husband was with her that night, then she admits he was not; first you are under the assumption they are husband and wife, then you find out they are just faking marriage and living together, which would in itself be startling in the 1920s; first you know her by one name, suddenly you find out she’s got another. Facts may be empirical but they are unstable. The world is not a puzzle to piece together as in an Agatha Christie mystery. The world is in a state of flux where you just don’t know what reality is. That little detail where she lights her match under her foot is striking. Smoking, even by the 1920s, was a rebellious act for women, and striking the match under her foot emphasizes the grittiness of her character. She is not a genteel lady.
Later they find out that Mae Landis had been spending time in another apartment. The detective and George Dean decide to go over and invstigate. There they interrogate the landlady to find out if Landis is actually living there and with whom.
It was a ramshackle building, divided into apartments or flats of a dismal and dingy sort. We found the landlady in the basement: a gaunt woman in soiled gray, with a hard, thin-lipped mouth and pale, suspicious eyes. She was rocking vigorously in a creaking chair and sewing on a pair of overalls, while three dirty kids tussled with a mongrel puppy up and down the room.
Dean showed his badge, and told her that we wanted to speak to her in privacy. She got up to chase the kids and their dog out, and then stood with hands on hips facing us.
“Well, what do you want?” she demanded sourly.
Isn’t that marvelous. The landlady’s character is the story’s finest creation. It’s these subtle bits of writing that make stories special for me.
“Want to get a line on your tenants,” Dean said. “Tell us about them.”
“Tell you about them?” She had a voice that would have been harsh enough even if she hadn’t been in such a peevish mood. “What do you think I got to say about ‘em? What do you think I am? I’m a woman that minds her own business! Nobody can’t say that I don’t run a respectable —”
This was getting us nowhere.
“Who lives in number one?” I asked.
“The Auds — two old folks and their grandchildren. If you know anything against them, it’s more’n them that has lived with ‘em for ten years does!”
“Who lives in number two?”
“Mrs. Codman and her boys, Frank and Fred. They been here three years, and —”
I carried her from apartment to apartment, until finally we reached a second-floor one that didn’t bring quite so harsh an indictment of my stupidity for suspecting its occupants of whatever it was that I suspected them of.
“The Quirks live there.” She merely glowered now, whereas she had had a snippy manner before. “And they’re decent people, if you ask me!”
“How long have they been here?”
“Six months or more.”
“What does he do for a living?”
“I don’t know.” Sullenly: “Travels, maybe.”
“How many in the family?”
“Just him and her, and they’re nice quiet people, too.”
“What does he look like?”
“Like an ordinary man. I ain’t a detective, I don’t go ’round snoopin’ into folks’ faces to see what they look like, and prying into their business. I ain’t —”
“How old a man is he?”
“Maybe between thirty-five and forty, if he ain’t younger or older.”
“Large or small?”
“He ain’t as short as you and he ain’t as tall as this feller with you,” glaring scornfully from my short stoutness to Dean’s big hulk, “and he ain’t as fat as neither of you.”
“No.” Triumphantly: “Dark.”
“Dark eyes, too?”
“I guess so.”
Dean, standing off to one side, looked over the woman’s shoulder at me. His lips framed the name “Whitacre.”
“Now how about Mrs. Quirk — what does she look like?” I went on.
“She’s got light hair, is short and chunky, and maybe under thirty.”
Dean and I nodded our satisfaction at each other; that sounded like Mae Landis, right enough.
“Are they home much?” I continued.
“I don’t know,” the gaunt woman snarled sullenly, and I knew she did know, so I waited, looking at her, and presently she added grudgingly: “I think they’re away a lot, but I ain’t sure.”
“I know,” I ventured, “they are home very seldom, and then only in the daytime — and you know it.”
She didn’t deny it, so I asked: “Are they in now?”
“I don’t think so, but they might be.”
“Let’s take a look at the joint,” I suggested to Dean.
He nodded and told the woman: “Take us up to their apartment an’ Janlock the door for us.”
“I won’t!” she said with sharp emphasis. “You got no right goin’ into folks’ homes unless you got a search warrant. You got one?”
Oh that just makes me smile. Hammett is so good at characterization. I’m going to leave it there. You can read the rest. I’ll leave you with a scene from the movie rendition of The Maltese Falcon.