The red pill aspect of this novel lies in main character Sam Spade’s interactions with women.
This is a very good novel, so SERIOUS SPOILER WARNING. In particular, I’m going to be forced to reveal whodunnit about a murder.
Elisions won’t be indicated with ellipses. I’m not omitting anything important.
The setting: San Francisco, late 1920s.
In the first chapter a Miss Wonderly, a gorgeous redhead, comes to the offices of private investigators Sam Spade and Miles Archer. Wonderly is seeking her sister, who fled from New York City to San Francisco with a man named Thursby, whom Wonderly doesn’t trust. She wants to find her sister and bring her back to NYC. She’s found out Thursby’s general whereabouts on her own, and she gives Spade and Archer enough info for Archer to start tailing Thursby that night. The hope is that Thursby will lead Archer to the sister. By the next morning both Archer and Thursby have been shot dead.
Spade and Wonderly are talking in her apartment. “Wonderly” now says her real name is Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and admits that she has no sister. She won’t tell Spade anything about why she really wanted Spade and Archer to tail Thursby.
Spade: “Now what are we going to tell the police?”
“Must they know about me at all?” she asked. “I can’t explain now, but can’t you somehow manage so that you can shield me from them, so I won’t have to answer their questions?”
“Maybe,” he said, “but I’ll have to know what it’s all about.”
She went down on her knees at his knees. She held her face up to him. Her face was wan and fearful over tight-clasped hands.
“I haven’t lived a good life,” she cried. “I’ve been bad–worse than you could know–but I’m not all bad. Look at me, Mr. Spade. You know I’m not all bad, don’t you? Then can’t you trust me a little? Oh, I’m so alone and afraid, and I’ve got nobody to help me if you won’t. I’ve nobody else, Mr. Spade. If I thought anybody else could save me would I be down on my knees like this? You’re strong, you’re resourceful, you’re brave. Help me, Mr. Spade. Help me because I need help so badly. I’ve no right to ask you to help me blindly, but I do ask you. Be generous, Mr. Spade. Help me.”
Spade, who had held his breath through much of this speech, now emptied his lungs with a long exhalation between pursed lips and said: “You won’t need much of anybody’s help. You’re good. You’re very good. It’s chiefly your eyes, I think, and that throb you get into your voice when you say things like ‘Be generous, Mr. Spade.'”
Absolutely unmoved by her histrionics, and doesn’t let himself get, er, distracted by the fact that she’s on her knees before him. In other words, he sees through her attempt to play the sex card.
(Also, of course, you probably don’t want to trust someone who gave you a false name and is somehow involved in two murders.)
The next day Spade and O’Shaughnessy are again at her apartment. Since they’ve last seen each other, one Joel Cairo has hired Spade to recover a statuette of a raptor. This falcon would seem to have nothing to do with O’Shaughnessy… except that Cairo told Spade that Thursby’s murder is connected to the falcon, and we know Thursby has some connection to O’Shaughnessy.
Spade to Brigid O’Shaughnessy:
“I saw Joel Cairo tonight,” he said in the manner of one making polite conversation.
Gaiety went out of her face. There was a long pause before she asked uneasily:
“You–you know him?”
“I saw him tonight.” Spade maintained his light tone.
“Well, what did he say?” she asked with half-playful petulance.
“He offered me five thousand dollars for the black bird.”
She laughed, dropped the cigarette into a tray, and looked at him with clear merry eyes. “And what did you say?”
“Five thousand dollars is a lot of money.”
She smiled, but when he looked gravely at her, her smile vanished. In its place came a hurt, bewildered look. “Surely you’re not really considering it,” she said.
“Why not? Five thousand dollars is a lot of money.”
“But, Mr. Spade, you promised to help me.” Her hands were on his arm. “I trusted you. You can’t–” She broke off.
Spade smiled gently into her troubled eyes. “Don’t let’s try to figure out how much you’ve trusted me,” he said. “You didn’t say anything about any black birds.”
“But you must’ve known or–or you wouldn’t have mentioned it to me. You do know now. You won’t treat me like that.” Her eyes were cobalt-blue prayers.
That last sentence is beautiful writing. It’s made all the more forceful by the fact that O’Shaughnessy is a psychopathic liar.
“Five thousand dollars is,” he said for the third time, “a lot of money.”
She lifted her hands and let them fall in a gesture that accepted defeat. “It is,” she agreed in a small voice. “It is far more than I could ever offer you, if I must bid for your loyalty.”
Spade laughed. “What have you given me besides money? Have you given me any of the truth? Haven’t you tried to buy my loyalty with money and nothing else? Well, if I’m peddling it, why shouldn’t I let it go to the highest bidder?”
“I’ve given you all the money I have.” Tears glistened in her eyes. Her voice was hoarse, vibrant. “I’ve thrown myself on your mercy. What else is there?” She suddenly moved close to him on the settee and cried angrily: “Can I buy you with my body?”
Their faces were a few inches apart. Spade took her face between his hands and he kissed her mouth roughly. Then he sat back and said: “I’ll think it over.” His face was hard and furious.
He stood up and said: “Christ! there’s no sense to this.” He took two steps towards the fireplace and stopped, glowering at the burning logs. He turned to face her. “I don’t give a damn about your honesty,” he told her. “I don’t care what your secrets are, but I’ve got to have something to show that you know what you’re doing.”
Again, not befuddled by her – now overt – offer of sex. Notice that he keeps that door open, though. LOL, pimp.
Later Spade and O’Shaughnessy go to Spade’s apartment to meet with Joel Cairo. Outside Spade’s place Archer’s wife Iva, with whom Spade was/is having an affair, is waiting in a car. Spade continues with Brigid into the lobby and asks her to wait a minute.
“That’s perfectly all right,” Brigid O’Shaughnessy said, sitting down. “You needn’t hurry.”
Spade went out to the sedan. When he had opened the sedan’s door Iva spoke quickly: “I’ve got to talk to you, Sam. Can’t I come in?” Her face was pale and nervous.
Iva clicked her teeth together and asked sharply: “Who is she?”
“I’ve only a minute, Iva,” Spade said patiently. “What is it?”
“Who is she?” she repeated, nodding at the street-door.
“What is the matter?” he asked. “Has anything happened? You oughtn’t to be here at this time of night.”
In other words, “Keep outta my bidness, woman!” He doesn’t try to placate Iva and he doesn’t give in to her demand for info. He basically just presents a brick wall.
“I’m beginning to believe that,” she complained. “You told me I oughtn’t to come to the office, and now I oughtn’t to come here. Do you mean I oughtn’t to chase after you? If that’s what you mean why don’t you say it right out?”
“Now, Iva, you’ve got no right to take that attitude.”
“I haven’t any rights at all, it seems, where you’re concerned. I thought I did. I thought your pretending to love me gave me–”
Spade said wearily: “This is no time to be arguing about that, precious. What was it you wanted to see me about?”
Notice that he neither confirms nor denies the “love” thing. Saying that he loves her would be retarded, because he obviously doesn’t, and it would give her too much hand. But telling her he doesn’t love her would just make her go into histrionics, and he doesn’t have time for that at the moment.
“I can’t talk to you here, Sam. Can’t I come in?”
“Why can’t I?”
Spade said nothing. [“Keep outta my bidness!”]
She made a thin line of her mouth and started the sedan’s engine, staring angrily ahead.
When the sedan began to move Spade said, “Good night, Iva,” shut the door, and went indoors again.
Brigid O’Shaughnessy rose smiling cheerfully from the bench and they went up to his apartment.
Brigid has good Girl Game. She’s cheerful, both in agreeing to wait in the lobby, and in her demeanor when Spade returns. This makes a sharp contrast with Iva’s clingy and demanding behavior. Just based on this scene, whom would you rather boink? Or, if you’re a chick, which one do you think most men would rather boink?
In Spade’s apartment, O’Shaughnessy and Spade are waiting for Joel Cairo. All we know at this point is that O’Shaughnessy became nervous when Spade told her Cairo is in San Francisco.
She stood in front of him, close. Her eyes were wide and deep. “I don’t have to tell you how utterly at a disadvantage you’ll have me, with him here, if you choose.”
Spade smiled slightly without separating his lips. “No, you don’t have to tell me,” he agreed.
“And you know I’d never have placed myself in this position if I hadn’t trusted you completely.” Her thumb and forefinger twisted a black button on his blue coat.
Spade said, “That again!” with mock resignation.
“But you know it’s so,” she insisted.
“No, I don’t know it.” He patted the hand that was twisting the button. “My asking for reasons why I should trust you brought us here. Don’t let’s confuse things. He’ll be here in a moment. Get your business with him over, and then we’ll see how we’ll stand.”
“And you’ll let me go about it–with him–in my own way?”
She turned her hand under his so that her fingers pressed his. She said softly: “You’re a God-send.”
Spade said: “Don’t overdo it.”
She looked reproachfully at him, though smiling, and returned to the rocker.
He calls out her attempt to butter him up with flattery. This is good because (1) it shows that he’s experienced enough to see through such manipulations, and (2) by rejecting her flattery, he’s showing that he doesn’t care about her approval. As the Chateau would say, he’s not lapping it up eagerly like a thirsty beta.
After Cairo has left, Spade asks Brigid,
“What’s this falcon that everybody’s all steamed up about?”
She asked: “Suppose I wouldn’t tell you? What would you do?”
“I wouldn’t be too surprised,” he told her, grinning so that the edges of his jaw-teeth were visible, “to know what to do next.”
“That’s what I wanted to know: what would you do next?”
He shook his head. “I don’t see what you’ve got to gain by covering up now. It’s coming out bit by bit anyhow, and give me another day, I’ll soon be knowing things about it that you don’t know.”
“I suppose you do now,” she said. “But–oh!–I’m so tired of it, and I do so hate having to talk about it. Wouldn’t it be just as well to wait and let you learn about it as you say you will?”
Spade laughed. “My way of learning is to heave a wild and unpredictable monkey-wrench into the machinery. It’s all right with me, if you’re sure none of the flying pieces will hurt you.”
She moved her bare shoulders uneasily, but said nothing. For several minutes they ate in silence. Then she said in a hushed voice: “I’m afraid of you, and that’s the truth.”
He said: “That’s not the truth.”
“It is,” she insisted in the same low voice. “I know two men I’m afraid of and I’ve seen both of them tonight.”
“I can understand your being afraid of Cairo,” Spade said. “He’s out of your reach.” [Joel Cairo is obviously, flamboyantly, homosexual.]
“And you aren’t?”
“Not that way,” he said and grinned.
Frankly sexual, no shame about male sexuality.
She blushed. She picked up a slice of bread encrusted with liverwurst. She put it down. She wrinkled her white forehead and she said: “It’s a black figure, as you know, of a hawk or falcon, about that high.” She held her hands a foot apart.
“What makes it important?”
She sipped coffee and brandy before she shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said. “They’d never tell me…”
She gives Spade a story about her, Cairo, and Thursby, and an attempt to get the falcon from some other guy in Constantinople.
Spade mashed the end of his cigarette in his plate. He spoke casually: “You are a liar.”
She got up and stood at the end of the table, looking down at him with dark abashed eyes. “I am a liar,” she said. “I have always been a liar.”
“Don’t brag about it. It’s childish.” His voice was good-humored. He came out from between table and bench. “Was there any truth at all in that yarn?”
She hung her head. “Not–not very much.”
Spade put a hand under her chin and lifted her head. He laughed into her wet eyes and said: “We’ve got all night. I’ll put some more brandy in some more coffee and we’ll try again.”
Her eyelids drooped. “Oh, I’m so tired,” she said tremulously, “so tired of it all, of lying and thinking up lies, and of not knowing what is a lie and what is the truth. I wish I–”
She put her hands up to Spade’s cheeks, put her open mouth hard against his mouth, her body flat against his body.
Spade’s arms went around her, holding her to him, a hand cradling her head, its fingers half lost among red hair, a hand moving groping fingers over her slim back.
The next morning, while Brigid is still asleep in his bed, Spade finds the key to her apartment in her clothes, slips out, and searches her apartment. LOL!
While this isn’t quite up to the standard of the guy who recently stole his date’s car, then used it to pick up another date, it’s a pretty pimp move.
Later, after Spade has returned to his apartment:
“Now about the bird?” Spade suggested as they ate.
She put her fork down and looked at him. “You can’t ask me to talk about that this morning of all mornings,” she protested. “I don’t want to and I won’t.”
“It’s a stubborn damned hussy,” he said sadly and put a piece of roll into his mouth.
He doesn’t push her, but he doesn’t act like supplicating wuss either.
Spade and Iva Archer:
Spade: “Where were you the night Miles was shot?”
“Home,” she replied without hesitating.
He shook his head, grinning at her.
“I was,” she insisted.
“No,” he said, “but if that’s your story it’s all right with me.”
“What makes you think I wasn’t home?” she asked slowly.
“Nothing except that I know you weren’t.”
“But I was, I was.” Her lips twisted and anger darkened her eyes. “Effie Perine [Spade’s secretary] told you that,” she said indignantly. “I saw her snooping around. You know she doesn’t like me, Sam. Why do you believe things she tells you?”
“Jesus, you women,” Spade said mildly. [LOL. Notice he doesn’t give her question – which is really just an attempt to start a fight – the dignity of a response.] He looked at the watch on his wrist. “You’ll have to trot along, precious. I’m late for an appointment now.”
“I’m not lying to you, Sam,” she protested.
“Like hell you’re not,” he said and stood up.
She strained on tiptoe to hold her face nearer his. “You don’t believe me?” she whispered.
“I don’t believe you.” He bent his head and kissed her mouth. “That’s all right. Now run along.”
This is pretty good. He calls out her BS but doesn’t stamp his foot about it like a frustrated beta. He basically just says, “LOL bullshit, now scram; I’ve got stuff to do.”
He patted her arms, took them from around his body, and kissed her left wrist. He put his hands on her shoulders, turned her to face the door, and released her with a little push. “Beat it,” he ordered.
He gives her the tender gesture of kissing her wrist to soften the shoving her out the door. After his calling out of her BS the previous night and in this scene, he provides just enough sensitive guy to give her hamster something to chew on. Reading all of this makes me wonder if Hammett was a particular stud hombre, or if our culture was just generally that much more knowledgeable about women circa 1930.
Spade and Effie Perine:
“The whole damned Perine family’s wonderful,” Spade said, “including you and the smudge of soot on your nose.” [CLASSIC NEG! Maybe Mystery has read this novel.]
She bent her head to look at her nose in her vanity-case mirror. “I must’ve got that from the fire.” She scrubbed the smudge with the corner of a handkerchief.
The final meeting with all the main characters: Spade, Cairo, O’Shaughnessy, and two others: Gutman, an all-around slimeball who has been chasing the falcon for seventeen years (and is the canonical “fat man” of detective noir), and Wilmer, a young gunman and associate of Gutman. All these people knew each other before they came to San Francisco and bumped into Spade. They are meeting in Spade’s apartment to wait while the falcon is delivered there, and to discuss matters like who will pay whom how much when.
Gutman: “Business should be transacted in a business-like manner.” He opened the envelope, took out the thousand-dollar bills, counted them, and chuckled. “For instance there are only nine bills here now.” He spread them out on his fat knees and thighs. “There were ten when I handed it to you.”
Spade looked at Brigid O’Shaughnessy and asked: “Well?”
She shook her head. Her face was frightened.
Spade held his hand out to Gutman and the fat man put the money into it. Spade counted the money–nine thousand-dollar bills–and returned it to Gutman. Then Spade stood and picked up the pistols on the table. “I want to know about this. We”–he nodded at the girl–“are going in the bathroom. The door will be open and I’ll be facing it. Unless you want a three-story drop there’s no way out of here except past the bathroom door. Don’t try to make it.”
“Really, sir,” Gutman protested, “it’s not necessary to threaten us in this manner.”
Spade was patient but resolute. “This trick upsets things. I’ve got to find the answer.” He touched the girl’s elbow. “Come on.”
In the bathroom Brigid O’Shaughnessy put her hands flat on Spade’s chest and her face up close to his and whispered: “I did not take that bill, Sam.”
“I don’t think you did,” he said, “but I’ve got to know. Take your clothes off.”
“All right. We’ll go back to the other room and I’ll have them taken off.”
She stepped back. Her eyes were round and horrified. “You would?”
“I will,” he said. “I’ve got to know what happened to that bill and I’m not going to be held up by anybody’s maidenly modesty.”
“Oh, it isn’t that.” She came close to him and put her hands on his chest again. “I’m not ashamed to be naked before you, but–can’t you see?–not like this. Can’t you see that if you make me you’ll–you’ll be killing something?”
He did not raise his voice. “I don’t know anything about that. I’ve got to know what happened to the bill. Take them off.”
Again, not swayed by her earnest blue eyes and all that.
She undresses and he checks out her and her clothes and verifies that the $1,000 bill is not on her, so is able to force Gutman to admit that he has it. A bit later in Spade’s kitchen:
Brigid O’Shaughnessy was filling an aluminum percolator.
“Find everything?” Spade asked.
“Yes,” she replied in a cool voice. Then she set the percolator aside and came to the door. Her eyes were large and chiding. “You shouldn’t have done that to me, Sam,” she said softly.
“I had to find out, angel.” He bent down, kissed her mouth lightly, and returned to the living-room.
As with Iva earlier, he’s been pretty hardcore with her, so he tosses out a little sensitive-guy stuff.
This is where everything comes to a crisis point.
The falcon has been delivered and turned out to be a counterfeit. Everyone but Spade and O’Shaughnessy has left Spade’s apartment. But there’s still a problem for Spade: The local cops dislike him, and there are still the unsolved murders of Miles Archer and Floyd Thursby… and since Spade is banging Archer’s wife the cops might use that to convince a jury that he has a motive to kill Archer. Spade (as he explained to everyone in the previous chapter) has to have a fall guy or he’ll get busted – and possibly hanged – for the murder of Archer, and maybe Thursby.
Spade tricks O’Shaughnessy into admitting that she killed Archer. She was hoping to pin the murder on Thursby to get him arrested.
Spade said tenderly: “I hope to Christ they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck.” He slid his hands up to caress her throat.
In an instant she was out of his arms, back against the table, wild-eyed. She said in a parched voice: “You’re not–” She could get no other words out.
Spade’s face was yellow-white. His mouth smiled and there were smile-wrinkles around his glittering eyes. His voice was soft, gentle. He said: “I’m going to send you over. The chances are you’ll get off with life. That means you’ll be out again in twenty years. You’re an angel. I’ll wait for you.” He cleared his throat. “If they hang you I’ll always remember you.”
The sweet words every girl longs to hear!
She dropped her hands and stood erect. Her face became smooth and untroubled except for the faintest of dubious glints in her eyes. She smiled back at him. “Don’t, Sam, don’t say that even in fun. Oh, you frightened me for a moment!”
Spade laughed. His face was damp with sweat and though he held his smile he could not hold softness in his voice. He croaked: “Don’t be silly. You’re taking the fall. One of us has got to take it.”
She took a long trembling breath. “You’ve been playing with me? You didn’t–care at all? You didn’t–don’t–love me?”
“I think I do,” Spade said. “What of it? I won’t play the sap for you.”
“That is not just,” she cried. Tears came to her eyes. “You know it was not that. You can’t say that.”
“Like hell I can’t,” Spade said. “You came into my bed to stop me asking questions. You led me out yesterday for Gutman with that phoney call for help.”
Brigid O’Shaughnessy blinked her tears away. She took a step towards him. “You’re lying if you say you don’t know down in your heart that, in spite of anything I’ve done, I love you.”
His eyes were becoming bloodshot, but there was no other change in his fixedly smiling face. “Maybe I do,” he said. “What of it? I should trust you? You who knocked off Miles, a man you had nothing against, in cold blood, just like swatting a fly, for the sake of double-crossing Thursby? No, darling. Why should I?”
Her eyes were steady under his and her voice was steady when she replied: “Why should you? If you’ve been playing with me, if you do not love me, there is no answer to that. If you did, no answer would be needed.”
Blood streaked Spade’s eyeballs now and his smile had become a frightful grimace. He said: “Making speeches is no damned good now.” He put a hand on her shoulder. “I don’t care who loves who. I’m not going to play the sap for you. I won’t walk in Thursby’s footsteps. You killed Miles and you’re going over for it. I can’t help you now. And I wouldn’t if I could.”
She put a hand on his hand on her shoulder. “Don’t help me then,” she whispered, “but don’t hurt me. Let me go away now.”
“No,” he said. “I’m sunk if I haven’t got you to hand over to the police when they come. That’s the only thing that can keep me from going down with the others.”
“You won’t do that for me?”
“I won’t play the sap for you. I don’t even like the idea of thinking that there might be one chance in a hundred that you’d played me for a sucker. Now on the other side we’ve got what? All we’ve got is the fact that maybe you love me and maybe I love you.”
“You know,” she whispered, “whether you do or not.”
“I don’t. It’s easy enough to be nuts about you.” He looked hungrily from her hair to her feet and up to her eyes again. “But I don’t know what that amounts to. But suppose I do? Maybe next month I won’t. I’ve been through it before–when it lasted that long. Then I’ll think I played the sap. And if I did it and got sent over then I’d be sure I was the sap. Well, if I send you over I’ll have some rotten nights, but that’ll pass.” He took her by the shoulders. “If that doesn’t mean anything to you forget it and we’ll make it this: I won’t because all of me wants to–wants to say to hell with the consequences and do it–and because–God damn you–you’ve counted on that with me the same as you counted on that with the others.” He took his hands from her shoulders and let them fall to his sides.
She put her face up to his face. Her mouth was slightly open with lips a little thrust out. She whispered: “If you loved me you’d need nothing more on that side.”
Spade set the edges of his teeth together and said through them: “I won’t play the sap for you.”
She put her mouth to his, slowly, her arms around him, and came into his arms. She was in his arms when the door-bell rang.
Spade, left arm around Brigid O’Shaughnessy, opened the corridor-door. Lieutenant Dundy, Detective-sergeant Polhaus, and two other detectives were there.
Someone’s gotta swing, babe, and it’s not going to be me. I don’t care if you turn those big blue eyes on me and whisper tearfully of love. I won’t play the sap for you.
Presumably most men, even blue-pill ones, wouldn’t take the fall for the woman in this scenario – especially when you’re looking at being hanged! – but I think some men would feel a need to make self-justifying speeches. Spade doesn’t do that. Yeah, there are a lot of words, but he basically stays on point: “I won’t play the sap.” Feminine wiles? Sorry, no dice.
By the way, note how good the writing is here. It’s not striking word choice in the sense of “Her eyes were cobalt-blue prayers,” in fact it’s very simple and stripped down. But that’s stylistically perfect for this kind of scene, because it presents with no distractions its inherent drama:
We have a psychopathic, cold-blooded murderess, looking at the gallows, desperately using everything she has in her ruthless Machiavellian toolkit to try to make a man take the fall for her. She throws everything she has at him. He is crazy about her (for some reason), but resists. Watching O’Shaughnessy on offense here, and Spade swatting down her efforts, is enthralling. This is especially true when you read the whole scene – I’ve cut it for length – and when you come to it after having been through the rest of the novel as build-up. This novel is deservedly a classic.
Thanks to Project Gutenberg for saving me lots of typing.
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