Just three paragraphs in, The Maltese Falcon uses character description to subtly hint at a theme which will be increasingly fleshed out as subtext. What is especially impressive is the way in which this thematic tapestry can serve to enhance an appreciation of the narrative to those readers recognizing it while in no way undermining the appreciation of the novel for those who fail to intuit the underlying psychology. Perhaps even more striking is that the questions being raised just below the surface of the narrative events point toward the motivation behind the central character’s actions in that narrative and yet no definitive answers are provided either explicitly or implicitly.
The first paragraph ends with an unusual physical description of Sam Spade: “He looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.” That short, simple declarative sentence is deceptive; it may be short, but hardly simple. What is really suggesting that is Sam Spade looks like something that he really is not. It is more than that, however, because it is suggesting what he looks like is something that should not be expected. A representation of Satan with blonde hair before the advent of Modern Art is about almost as difficult to find as a black Jesus during the same period. Even with the advent of Modern Art, it is still pretty tricky business to find a blonde Satan that looks pleasant. Those two things simply do not seem to fit: Satan is not a pleasant figure, historically speaking. So, one paragraph into the novel and we are being advised to keep in mind that Sam Spade may not be altogether everything that he appears.
Less than 40 words later comes another seemingly throw minor descriptive detail that takes on greater significance when placed into context of the entire novel. Spade’s secretary, Effie Perine—the only woman in the novel whom he is either not sleeping with or planning to sleep with as well as the only person who trusts—pops in to announce a beautiful potential client is waiting outside. A quick little description of Perine ends on the most important aspect of that appearance, her “boyish face.” One page later when the woman Effie describes as a “knockout” is seated across from Spade on the other side of his office desk, a curious detail is provided about that desk. There is an ashtray on which sits one limp cigarette still smoldering among the remains of a limp cigarettes whose flame has already been crushed out.
Spade is not what he seems. The one female he trust the most, yet appears to have no sexual desire resembles a young male and the beautiful knockout across from his is juxtaposed with the symbolic imagery of limp phallic shapes whose fiery charge has been extinguished or is the verge of dying out. Not even two full pages into the narrative of The Maltese Falcon and the astute reader looking for hints beneath what is explicitly related seem to pointing in a specific direction.
This direction will only become apparent as Spade leaves his office and comes into contact with three figures who need no subtext to force the reader into questioning their sexuality. Joel Cairo, Gutman and Wilmer are quite clearly conveyed as homosexuals. Their sexuality is important only as it relates to how Spade reacts and Spade does not react positively. On the surface, the homosexuality of the others appears to exist only for the purpose of placing them in opposition to the image of Spade as the idealization of masculinity. He is shown to be physically, intellectually, and morally superior to them and takes great joy in undermining their manliness. Even the fact that Spade refuses to carry a gun is contextually placed as a thematic underscoring of his superior qualities as the epitome of a man’s man and a woman’s man.
While this construction of Spade as the ultimate heterosexual ideal seems obvious enough, it is important to keep three very important things in mind: one, in the very first paragraph the reader is given a red flag to be careful about the deceptive potential of appearance. Secondly, remember that this story ends with the climactic revelation that the Maltese Falcon is not what it appears to be. And, finally, Spade appears to have very little trouble sending to the gas chamber this woman that we are led to believe he has developed deep feelings for. Don’t forget that Effie “woman’s intuition” advises Sam to trust the woman he will wind up handing over to the cops.
The evidence in the text all points to Sam Spade being devised as a model of tough, heterosexual masculinity who doesn’t even need that phallic symbol of all phallic symbols to catch the bad guys. But maybe Spade’s lack of a pistol is more symbolic than it seems. Maybe that piston would be as limp and useless as his cigarettes if he took off that mask and showed his true self. Maybe Spade tells the digressive anecdote about Flitcraft as a way of secretly informing her through code that a person can’t really change who they are, but they also can’t stop themselves from trying. Maybe the reason that Spade won’t sleep with Effie is because sleeping with a girl with a boyish face would be cutting too close to the truth he is trying to change. Maybe Spade’s uncensored contempt for Wilmer is an expression of contempt for himself. And maybe—just maybe—when Spade tells Joel Cairo that when he’s slapped, he’ll take and like—it isn’t quite so much the threat it seems to be as it is a promise.
The answer is never definitively answered either to the affirmative or negative, but the clues that are planted in the subtext of The Maltese Falcon all lead to a very important question: Is Sam Spade the first mainstream homosexual private detective in American literary history?