Dashiell Hammett (1894–1961)
From Dashiell Hammett: Crime Stories & Other Writings
127 years ago, on May 27, 1894, detective fiction writer Dashiell Hammett was born.
“I won’t play the sap for you,” Sam Spade says to Brigid O’Shaughnessy at the end of The Maltese Falcon, one of the most famous scenes in all of hard-boiled crime literature—or, for that matter, film. Yet both the scene and the 1930 novel that contains it had clear beginnings in the stories Hammett wrote for Black Mask magazine during the mid-1920s. Sam Spade was preceded by the nameless Continental Op, the cynical hero of most of the stories, and Brigid O’Shaughnessy was an amalgamation of at least two previous characters, Ines Almad of “The Whosis Kid” and Princess Sonya Zhukovski of “The Gutting of Couffignal.”
In an introduction to The Maltese Falcon he wrote in 1934, Hammett claimed he wasn’t quite sure how the novel came to be. “All I can remember about its invention,” he recalled, “is that somewhere I had read of the peculiar rental agreement between Charles V and the Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem [bestowing a Maltese falcon to the imperial court every year on All Saints Day], 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 dénouement, 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.”
The closing scene of “The Gutting of Couffignal,” then, was a sort of dry run for the end of the novel universally regarded as Hammett’s masterpiece. We present the story in full as our Story of the Week selection, along with an introduction describing how the action and violence in the tale was in part spurred by his contentious relationship with the magazine’s editors.