Dashiell Hammett has been rightfully praised for his characters, which, according to The New York Times, are “as sharply and economically defined as any in American action” (back cover, The Maltese Falcon). Indeed, his “importance as a writer lies in part in his skill in characterization” (Hammett, Books and Authors 2).
A page-by-page analysis of The Maltese Falcon reveals that in this book, Hammett achieved his much-admired characterization through detailed physical descriptions. Many authors use physical details in defining their characters, but rarely to the extent that Hammett does in The Maltese Falcon.
“How-to” books on writing list rules for creating believable and interesting characters through action, sympathy for the characters, giving characters a flaw, original dialogue, and avoiding stereotypes, clichés and one-dimensional characters, etc. The list can go on for pages, with little space devoted to the role of physical description. (See, for example, Orson Scott Carl, who in Characters & Viewpoint, writes that “It’s no accident that I’ve listed physical appearance last. Far too many writers especially beginners think that a physical description of a character is characterization” [Carl 13].)
But Hammett demonstrates that believable and fascinating characters can be created almost exclusively by physical description. Hammett’s characters can be so engrossing, the reader doesn’t notice a lack of attention to setting, or the fact that the many characters, several of whom are very talkative, can only be identified by the content of their speech. No attempt is made to differentiate voices.
The more important the character, the greater the space Hammett devotes to the description of that character. On page one of The Maltese Falcon, the first seven lines are a detailed description of the hero, Sam Spade, summed up by, “He looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.” (The phrase “blonde Satan” or other variations, such as “wooden Satan,” are repeated later in the book.)
Hammett uses five lines on page two to describe Spade’s secretary, Effie Perine: “a lanky sunburned girl” with “a shiny, boyish face…” The author slips in Spade’s age (past thirty) on page five, and adds a paragraph to his description of Spade on page two: “He was quite six feet tall. The steep rounded slope of his shoulders made his body seem almost conical—no broader than it was thick.” But most of page two is devoted to the description of a new client, Miss Wonderly, aka Miss LeBlanc and Brigid O’Shaughnessy:
She advanced slowly, with tentative steps, looking at Spade with cobalt-blue eyes that were both shy and probing.
She was tall and pliantly slender, without angularity anywhere. Her body was erect and high-breasted, her legs long, her hands and feet narrow. She wore two shades of blue that has been selected because of her eyes. The hair curling from under her blue hat was darkly red, her full lips more brightly red. White teeth glistened in the crescent her timid smile made. (2)
When next we encounter her, Miss Wonderly has become Miss LeBlanc, and wears “a belted green crepe silk dress…her dark red hair, parted on the left side, swept back in loose waves over her right temple, was somewhat tousled….she seemed smaller, very young and oppressed” (30-32).
Then, as Brigid O’Shaughnessy, “she had put on a satin gown of the blue shade called Artoise that season, with chalcedony shoulder-straps, and her stockings and slippers were Artoise” (54). Brigid O’Shaughnessy, as Spade’s lover and with other roles to play, is the second most important character in the book, as is suggested by the amount of space devoted to her description. (He later refers again to her eyes: “Her eyes were cobalt-blue prayers” .)
Hammett devotes little space to describing the unimportant—or perhaps soon-to-be- banished—characters. His partner, Miles Archer, is dismissed on page five with three terse lines: “solidly built, wide in the shoulder, thick in the neck, with a jovial heavy-jawed red face…”
Iva, Miles Archer’s widow, with whom Spade has been having an affair, but of whom he now says, “I wish to Christ I’d never seen her” (25), is described as “a blonde woman of a few more years than thirty. Her facial prettiness was perhaps five years past its best moment. Her body for all its sturdiness was finely modeled and exquisite. She wore black clothes from hat to shoes” (22-23).
Floyd Thursby (described by Miss Wonderly) “is thirty-five…as tall as you and either naturally dark or quite sunburned. His hair is dark, too, and he has thick eyebrows” (6).
Detective Sargent Tom Polhaus, for whom Spade apparently feels friendly contempt, is “a barrel-bellied tall man with shrewd small eyes, a thick mouth, and carelessly shaven dark jowls” (12). (Hammett uses the “barrel-bellied” phrase again when referring to Polhaus.)
Police Lieutenant Dundy, whom Spade dislikes, is “a compactly built man with a round head under short-cut grizzled hair and a square face behind a short-cut grizzled mustache” (15).
District Attorney Bryan is “a blonde man of medium stature, perhaps forty-five years old with aggressive blue eyes behind black-ribboned nose glasses, the over-large mouth of an orator, and a wide-dimpled chin” (144).
…was a small-boned dark man of medium height. His hair was black and smooth and very glossy. His features were Levantine. [He is subsequently cited several times as The Levantine.] A square-cut ruby, its sides paralleled by four baguette diamonds, gleamed against the deep green of his cravat. His black coat, cut tight to narrow shoulders, flared a little over slightly plump hips. His trousers fitted his round legs more snugly than was the current fashion. The uppers of his patent-leather shoes were hidden by fawn spats. He held a black derby hat in a chamois-gloved hand and came towards Spade with short, mincing, bobbing steps. The fragrance of chypre came with him. (42)
Caspar Gutman, AKA the fat man:
The fat man was flabbily fat with bulbous pink cheeks and lips and chins and neck, with a great soft egg of a belly that was all his torso, and pendant cones for arms and legs. As he advanced to meet Spade all his bulbs rose and shook and fell separately with each step, in the manner of clustered soap-bubbles not yet released from the pipe through which they had been blown. His eyes, made small by fat puffs around them, were dark and sleek. Dark ringlets thinly covered his broad scalp. He wore a black cutaway coat, black vest, black satin ascot tie holding a pinkish pearl, striped grey worsted trousers, and patent-leather shoes. (104)
Wilbur Cook, Gutman’s secretary, is “…an undersized youth of twenty or twenty one” (52, 54, 59).
He stood in the doorway with his soft hat crushed between his head and the top of the door-frame; he was nearly seven feet tall. A black overcoat cut long and straight and like a sheath, buttoned from throat to knees, exaggerated his leanness. His shoulders stuck out, high, thin, angular. His bony face—weather-coarsened, age-lined—was the color of wet sand and was wet with sweat on cheeks and chin. His eyes were dark and bloodshot and mad above lower lids that hung down to show pink inner membrane. (156)
In addition to the law enforcers, the villains, and those scheduled to be banished, like Iva—Hammett includes an astonishing number of bit players, all of whom are given a brief description. In the order in which they appear:
- At St. Marks Hotel: “a redhaired dandy” at the desk (27)
- Also at St. Mark’s: Mr. Freed, “a plump young-middle-aged man in dark clothes” (27)
- At the law firm, Wise, Merican & Wise: “The red-haired girl at the switchboard” (40) and Sid Wise, “a small olive-skinned man with a tired oval face under thin dark hair dotted with dandruff” (41)
- Luke, the house detective at the Hotel Belvedere: “a middle aged man of medium height, round and sallow of face, compactly built, tidily dressed in dark clothes” (95)
- Rhea Gutman, daughter of the Fat Man, “a brown-haired smallish girl” (134)
Dashiell Hammett’s approach to characterization would be difficult to emulate, and might not be acceptable to today’s readers, editors, etc., who would probably prefer less description, and more “other” in defining a character. In writing classes, I have been told to scatter bits of the description of a character, rather than clumping them together as Hammett does. Perhaps that is the way today’s reader likes to see a description. Be that as it may, almost any writer can benefit from studying Hammett’s descriptions, and learning how to define a character in a few colorful lines His descriptions—especially those of his villains—are adept and original.
Some of today’s writing teachers and authors of “How-to” books urge writers to reduce the numbers of characters in a book to a minimum, and to omit names and descriptions of “bit players.” But those small flashes of description add variety and texture to Hammett’s book.
In a class on mystery writing, I analyzed Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar, a book I love, and learned that she included seven major and forty-five minor characters in Brat Farrar. Like Hammett, she named each one, and added a brief description. For me, this type of writing is more interesting than the unnamed “bit players” in many contemporary novels.