You may remember Marc LaViolette from the caper where he noticed something wrong in the Hammett collection Nightmare Town, and rang up Terry “Race” Zobeck, Pure Text Dick, to get to the bottom of it.
Mystery solved. Case closed. The usual.
Now Marc sends in his thoughts on another Mystery of These Mean Streets — you know, the one where Sue Montgomery pointed out that Hammett mentions the idea of Gutman and Gutman having a daughter wayyy before Sam Spade could have had a clew about Gutman or a daughter.
Read the background from Sue first.
Then for some deep-deep Hammett fun, pop back for Marc’s take on the situation. Here’s Marc:
I noticed the discrepancy about ten or fifteen years ago, which would have been on maybe my fifth or sixth reread of The Maltese Falcon. I think I may know what Hammett was driving at, and here is my view of the matter at hand.
The first hint to Gutman’s existence is in the chapter The Black Bird, where Joel Cairo makes a $5000 offer on behalf of “the figure’s rightful owner” — also the point in the plot where we find out that everyone is chasing “a statuette. . . the black figure of a bird.”
From this point on, and into the next chapter, Hammett clearly lets the reader know that Spade is trying to milk Cairo for information.
An example, at the end of the chapter: Spade remarks, “It’s an interesting figure,” as if he has intimate knowledge of it.
How could he know the figure is interesting? He found out about its existence less than five minutes ago. Spade is pretending to know more so that Cairo will reveal more.
The other important information given to us in that chapter is that it is clear that Cairo is homosexual. Effie Perrine says so to Spade before she lets him in the office. All the descriptions of Cairo and of his possessions indicate to the reader that fact in the strongest possible language, without using then-censored words.
In the following chapter, The Levantine, both Cairo and Spade are trying to find out what the other knows — apparently without much success until the conversation about Gutman’s daughter that has us baffled.
Near the end of the chapter Spade asks outright: “What sort of proof can you give me that your man is the rightful owner?”
I think Hammett uses the slang “your man” as a double entendre.
On the face of it, the man for whom Cairo is working. But it could also mean a lover or ex-lover. Only one example of irony on the part of Spade in this chapter.
In reply, Cairo is given a six-line paragraph in which he divulges very little apart from the fact that he thinks the rightful owner was wronged by Thursby.
Then comes the fishing expedition by Spade:
“What about his daughter?” Spade asked.
Excitement opened Cairo’s eyes and mouth, turned his face red, made his voice shrill. “He is not the owner!”
Spade said, “Oh,” mildly and ambiguously.
“Is he here, in San Francisco, now?” Cairo asked in a less shrill, but still excited, voice.
Here is the important part, the original emphasis by Hammett on the first pronoun — He.
Spade, again using irony with the word “daughter,” appears to ask about a female. But is he really hinting about an effeminate male, the rightful owner’s possible present lover?
Does Cairo, flustered, fall into the trap — revealing that Gutman has a new lover with him in San Francisco?
Spade is talking about a man and so is Cairo. Though we do not know the man’s name yet, they are talking about Wilmer. They are not talking about Rhea.
I don’t see it as a plotting error. It shows Spade’s cunning in obtaining information without us even knowing what he is up to.
Thus proposes Marc! And you no doubt can figure out where he’d stand on the question of whether or not Wilmer Cook and Rhea Gutman are the same person, another favorite pastime of the deep thinkers haunting this blog. . . .