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Author Topic: Humanity in the Maltese Falcon?  (Read 2038 times)
James_Nostack
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Posts: 726


« on: July 23, 2009, 05:59:57 PM »

I'm doing "Sorcerer exercise" with an eye toward later play.  I'm adapting Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon using the relationship-map method from The Sorcerer's Soul.  I'm having a little bit of trouble working out Humanity issues.

Step 1: Draw the Map
This is pretty easy to do: it's a short novel with very few characters.  Because the story's common knowledge and I have trouble drawing pictures on the computer, I'll refer interested readers to Wikipedia's detailed plot summary.

When you draw up the R-Map, it's clear just by looking at it that the story's about a woman with extremely labile/facile/tenuous/tangled relationships as she intrudes into Spade's home turf--and that ultimately their mutual contempt of Archer will be a stumbling block.

Step 2: Isolate the Moral Crimes to Define Humanity
I just blasted through the novel in one sitting, and will be looping back for another pass in a day or two.  These are the moral crimes that stand out to me on a pretty quick read:

* Spade betrays Brigid to the police
* (Conjectural but inarguable: Brigid would betray Spade in a heartbeat)
* Brigid's and Spade's mutual inability to confide in each other
* Brigid coldbloodedly murders Archer
* Spade's loathly satisfaction at Archer's death
* Spade's cruelty to Iva
* Brigid's cruelty to Thursby
* Gutman's exploitation of his daughter Rhea
* Gutman (and ultimately Cairo) agreeing to sacrifice Wilmer
* Mmmaybe Brigid and Thursby betraying Cairo and Gutman
* Mmmaybe Gutman's torture of Konstantinides

Contrary to the usual assumption in The Sorcerer's Soul, very little in the backstory merits getting worked up about: a gaggle of untrustworthy low-lifes have a falling out over a big score and scheme against each other.  The juicy stuff comes from Brigid's compulsively deceitful interactions with Spade.  I haven't figured out how that'll play out in later stages.

The main humanity consideration here is Trustworthiness / Loyalty / Devotion.  Despite their mutual attraction, neither Spade nor Brigid can bring themselves to trust one another, and Spade gives her up in part to save his hide.  (Also, perhaps, as a show of loyalty to Archer even though he doesn't deserve it.)  Brigid routinely substitutes sentimentality for trust.  Gutman claims to view Wilmer as a son, but is all-too-ready to cut him loose; Cairo is far more loyal but even he gives Wilmer up at the end. 

That's all pretty easy to see.

But what throws me is Effie's constant support for Brigid, even after she knows Brigid murdered Archer and is a lousy dame.  I like Effie too much to think she's a bad judge of character--but that means that there's something about Brigid (and about Spade) that merits her approval.  Which makes me think there's a Dual Humanity definition here, but if so I'm not quite seeing it.  Maybe it's "Mastery" or something, but I'm not sure.

Suggestions?

(later steps to be done later)
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jburneko
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« Reply #1 on: July 23, 2009, 06:18:34 PM »

Hey James,

Part of the process outline in Sorcerer's Soul involves tossing out the protagonist from the book.  If you remove Spade from the picture (and perhaps assume Archer is a free agent) what do things look like?  Or put another way, what Moral Crimes have happened BEFORE Spade comes into the picture.

Jesse
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James_Nostack
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« Reply #2 on: July 23, 2009, 06:47:33 PM »

Jesse, that's kind of what I was getting at.  Take any one of Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer novels: the detective is almost a therapist, a sort of bodiless amanuensis to elicit long-suppressed tales of twisted families.  The Maltese Falcon is different.  Spade is absolutely central to the moral action, because the reader is really judging the Hero and Heroine rather than any of the putative villains.

Once you root up Spade, you're left with a very insubstantial story.  I guess the closest thing to red meat is Brigid's exploitation of Thursby and Cairo's shiftiness.  There simply aren't many details, and the details which do exist aren't very juicy.  Gutman wants the bird and hires Brigid to retrieve it; Brigid hires Thusby and Cairo for help.  The thieves retrieve the (fake) bird and then Brigid methodically betrays everyone.  It's a shame, but that's a far cry from, "If they hang you I'll always remember you."  It's not even remotely the same game.

Right now, I'd almost be tempted to junk the whole backstory, and instead focus on the "fore-story" - namely Brigid, Spade, Thursby, Archer and Iva.  I'd  keep only enough of the backstory rigamarole to establish that Brigid's shadowy past is about to catch up with her.

Other ideas about Humanity:
* Maybe Brotherhood (turns out Hammett was a Communist during the 1950's)
* Maybe Sincerity -- in which case Spade gains Humanity by being honest with Brigid but loses it for being so un-Sentimental
* Maybe Self-Control (Spade makes a big deal that he let Dundy hit him; he resists Brigid's siren call)
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #3 on: July 24, 2009, 04:07:17 AM »

You're absolutely right about junking the whole Falcon, Greenstreet, et cetera business. All of that might as well be a bunch of ninjas or monkeys climbing through the windows.

Am I exhibiting advanced age, and misremembering something? My understanding of the book is that the core back-story is Archer having an affair with his partner's wife. A great deal of his actions involve covering his own tracks in that matter in order not to be a suspect when his partner is murdered.

Hence in Sorcerer terms we're not talking relationship map prep outside of the protagonist (in Soul terms), we're talking about a Kicker which offers its own relationship map, without much need for a MacDonald style treatment.

Best, Ron
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James_Nostack
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« Reply #4 on: July 24, 2009, 06:43:20 AM »

You're absolutely right about junking the whole Falcon, Greenstreet, et cetera business. All of that might as well be a bunch of ninjas or monkeys climbing through the windows.

Yes: the bit about the Knights of Malta, and a disgraced White Russian general living in Constantinople, and mysterious voyages to Hongkong are a lot of fun, but then, ninja monkeys are fun too.  I suspect that stuff was thrown into the story just to give it a (misleading) air of exoticism.  In play it could simply be that Brigid's got herself into some demonic trouble she can't handle alone.

I don't know anything about the history of the Mystery genre, or about Hammett as a writer.  But I suspect that The Maltese Falcon is in large part a deconstruction of the form.  It's entertaining to watch Spade put people in their place, but at heart he's kind of a thug.  The supposed Heroine/Damsel-in-Distress is a murderess who lies so compulsively that she doesn't know what the truth is anymore.  The criminal mastermind is a buffoon.  The closest thing to unselfish love in the novel is homosexual (which would have been a subversive idea in 1930).  The lawmen are interested in personal vendettas or their careers, to the point of ignoring contrary evidence.  And all of this hullaballoo is over some laughably exotic quest for a treasure that turns out to be worthless.

Hardboiled detective fiction : Agatha Christie :: gansta rap : Run DMC

Quote
Am I exhibiting advanced age, and misremembering something? My understanding of the book is that the core back-story is Archer having an affair with his partner's wife. A great deal of his actions involve covering his own tracks in that matter in order not to be a suspect when his partner is murdered.

That's right, except that everyone suspects Spade from the jump.  Spade's a complicated guy, but the motive which drives the plot is to absolve himself, legally and morally, for Archer's death.  Spade solves the legal problem by sacrificing Brigid, but the last few lines of the book make it clear that he's only made his moral situation worse. 

Hmm: what about this for an explanation of Effie's comments - Effie isn't concerned about Brigid-for-Brigid, but rather, because she knows Spade is in a Low Humanity danger zone and needs to be devoted to something pure, in this case, love of a woman in spite of her flaws...?  She wants Spade to be good to Brigid as a means to redemption (so that Effie won't feel her own love is misguided) ?  It seems to fit, but I can't help wondering if there's more to Humanity here than meets the eye.

Quote
Hence in Sorcerer terms we're not talking relationship map prep outside of the protagonist (in Soul terms), we're talking about a Kicker which offers its own relationship map, without much need for a MacDonald style treatment.

That's probably right, though I'm reluctant to give up the sunk cost.  What about this:

Brigid's a naive sorcerer who's gotten herself in way over her head.  She's got a disagreeable, but devoted, bodyguard/boyfriend, but knows he's not going to be enough.  So she approaches Archer the Adept, claiming that she needs his help to put down the demon--but then sacrifices him to appease it temporarily.  Brigid and Thursby now don't trust one another, and both are being hunted by the demon, and Archer's death has all kinds of ripples in the community.

Possible connectors to PC's include:
* Member of Archer's coven or his apprentice
* Archer's sorcerous rival, suspected of his death
* Involvement with Archer's significant other
* Brigid and/or Thursby reach out for help
* Brigid's rogue demon and PC's demon have a history

It's pretty bare-bones though...
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Marshall Burns
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« Reply #5 on: July 24, 2009, 10:03:38 AM »

I had a different view of Spade selling out Brigid. I don't think he was being cold and heartless; I think he was really in love with her. He did what he did because he was standing up for himself, in spite of himself.

Or maybe I just need to re-read it. It's been a while.
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James_Nostack
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« Reply #6 on: July 24, 2009, 02:37:21 PM »

I'd agree they have a lot of passion, but I have a hard time interpreting what they've got as "love."  Romance, maybe.

Anyway, I'm still a little perplexed by Effie's judgment on Brigid.  I'll hit the book again and see if I can spot something.  Of course, it's this ambiguity that makes the novel a classic...

Anticipating matters slightly, Brigid actually might work as an unbound demon who's urgently trying to persuade Spade into a binding, while Spade (mayyyybe) trying to convince her to become human.
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James_Nostack
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« Reply #7 on: August 05, 2009, 02:05:02 PM »

Okay, I think I've got this:

Dual Humanity definition.
  • On the one side, Humanity = Loyalty, or being able to trust and be trusted.  Being steadfast and true.  Keeping it real with someone.  Keeping the faith with other people.
  • On the other side, Humanity = Sentiment.  This term is often pejorative, but not here--I'm thinking of the term as the Romantic poets would have thought of it.  As the kernel of an emotional attachment.  At its fullest extent, romance and passion.
  • When these two factors are in harmony at the fullest extent, you've got something like True Love: an unshakable commitment for someone who sets your soul on fire etc. etc.  But that doesn't always happen.

So let's look at Spade's major relationships through this lens:
  • Archer - Spade has no sentimentality for Archer at all: he's a lech, a dope, and bad at his job.  Spade, however, ultimately chooses to keep faith with Archer by turning in his killer.
  • Brigid - Spade certainly feels some romance for Brigid, and he is pretty gallant toward Brigid for most of the novel.  But he can't bring himself to trust her because she's incapable of being sincere.  At the end, he crushes his sentimentality because there's no trust between them, and he has to keep some kind of covenant with Archer.  Note also that there's definitely some Humanity loss (possibly along both axes) when Spade forces Brigid to undress after Gutman's trick
  • Iva - no sentiment, no loyalty in this relationship.  Spade is trapped and hates being with her.
  • Effie - there's a lot of affection here, and the two of them watch out for each other.

Spade is a thick-skinned, cold-hearted, unsentimental brute who abuses most of the people around him including his friends.  He's a tough-guy detective and bordering on being a lousy human being.  Effie knows this; she patiently puts up with it because she hopes he's not all bad.  She hopes that deep down inside there's some germ of human feeling inside him.  She urges him to be good to Brigid because Effie strongly believes in the redemptive power of romance.  But Spade ultimately is forced to spurn her, and something inside him dies.  It leaves him horribly compromised in Effie's eyes, and although she still cares for Sam she can't approve of him right now.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #8 on: August 08, 2009, 12:15:27 PM »

I think you nailed it.

I have generally not utilized Dashiell Hammett's work for relationship maps because most of his novels tend to be based on several basic, protagonist-centered relationships, and then proliferate from there. They remind me more of "basic" Sorcerer in which nearly all the content is derived from the Kickers and the diagrams on the backs of the character sheets. Red Harvest is an exception (most people know this story as Yojimbo or For a Fistful of Dollars).

Best, Ron
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James_Nostack
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Posts: 726


« Reply #9 on: August 14, 2009, 04:58:06 AM »

I'll keep that in mind.  I read The Dain Curse earlier this month, and the structure of that book is pretty wacky.  (I assume it must have been published as a serial, but the copyright page doesn't reflect that.)

Step 3: Alter the Map
Given the Humanity definition from Step 2, three settings suggest themselves:
* Paris during the early 1830's
* Crack dealers in the late 1980's along the East Coast . . . say, Trenton.
* Korea during the last days of the Goryeo Dynasty (late 1300's)

The crack-dealer setting is probably the best fit, but presenting it would require a bit of work to present in a way that isn't informed by white middle-class hysteria and yet still retains enough genre elements for emotional buy-in.  That'd be a difficult line to walk and this morning I don't have the energy to try.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #10 on: August 18, 2009, 05:13:34 AM »

We're drifting from the topic slightly, but that's OK.

I suggest a group viewing of Clockers, which you've probably already seen. Some specific episodes of The Wire would probably serve as well.

Best, Ron
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