The Flitcraft Parable

>> Monday, May 12, 2008

I've been rereading The Maltese Falcon lately, with an eye toward using it as inspiration on the next Horatio Wilkes mystery, which is currently in production here at Gratz Industries. The Maltese Falcon is by Dashiell Hammett, not, like my previous inspirations, by Raymond Chandler, but I think I can be forgiven the transgression, as even Chandler considered Falcon to be high art. Reading it for perhaps the third time, I'm blown away all over again.

The prose is sparse and electric, and Sam Spade is an enigmatic and enthralling protagonist--a man who won't rest until the murder of his partner Miles Archer is solved and avenged, but who perhaps never really liked his partner, and had no problem having an affair with Archer's wife when his partner was alive. The action is fantastic too. The Maltese Falcon kind of magically falls into Spade's hands about 3/4 of the way through the book, but otherwise the plotting is tight and realistic, and somebody's always drawing a gun or getting beat up or ransacking an apartment.

But one of the most intriguing things I ran into again was what has come to be known as "The Flitcraft Parable." Sam Spade is a man of few extra words--he says what he needs to when he needs to, and he doesn't go in much for stories or poetic thoughts (unlike Philip Marlowe)--but he does take the time about sixty pages into the story to sit down and tell Brigid O'Shaughnessy the story of Charles Flitcraft.

I won't quote the whole thing here--it's about 1200 words--but you can read the entirety of it online here. In short, the story Spade tells is about a successful, well-adjusted family man from Tacoma named Flitcraft who is walking along one day when a heavy steel beam from a construction site hits the concrete just a foot or so from his face. Flitcraft is so rattled by his near-death experience that he never comes home from lunch that day. He leaves his wife, his two boys, his successful real estate practice, his four o'clock tee time, and just disappears.

"He went like that," Spade said, "like a fist when you open your hand."

Five years later, someone matching Flitcraft's description is seen in Spokane, and Spade, who was then working for a Seattle detective agency, is sent to investigate. It's the same man all right. He's living under a new last name, but, oddly, his life is very similar to the one he left behind. He's married, has a baby boy, and makes a good living as an auto dealer. Spade has no instructions, so he meets the man and tells him plainly why he's come. Over lunch, Flitcraft explains--for the first time ever--why he left. The day the beam fell, he was scared, of course, but not so much frightened as shocked. "He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works," Spade tells Brigid.

Rather than be upset at the injustice of a cruel and indifferent world, "what disturbed him was the discovery that in sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step, and not in step, with life. He said he knew before he had gone twenty feet from the fallen beam that he would never know peace until he had adjusted himself to this new glimpse of life." The realization was profound: "Life could be ended for him at random by a falling beam: he would change his life at random by simply going away."

After wandering around for a few years though, Flitcraft fell into the same routines and patterns of his previous life--perhaps without even realizing it. "That's the part of it I always liked," Spade tells Brigid. "He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling."

The placement of this mysterious "parable" in the otherwise rapid-fire, no-nonsense patter of The Maltese Falcon is noticeably out of place--and for that reason you won't see it in the exceptional movie adaptation. Even Brigid O'Shaughnessy is caught off guard by the story and by Spade's sudden openness. It's so different from everything else, it practically screams, "this is the theme of the story!" Which begs the question: just what does the story mean?

Some people read it as Spade telling Brigid that no matter what crazy things people may do in the moment, they will always, eventually revert to form. Sam tells this story to Brigid specifically, and though Brigid is pretending to be innocent, Spade knows she is an inveterate liar. Is he just telling her, in a veiled way, that he knows she's a liar and that eventually she will betray him?

Others have read a more existential theme to this parable. Says one professor, "The Flitcraft parable might best be thought of as Spade's understanding of the existential universe--a world without rules. Flitcraft had fashioned his life by a set of societal expectations, and the 'beams
falling' temporarily convinced him that he'd been walking blindfolded all his life, not realizing the random nature of chance. He thinks, by leaving his wife, home, and career behind that he's behaving in a hard-boiled way, which he is until his nature channels him back into the same life he'd always lived. He 'got used to them not falling,' as Spade says."

That's a bit heady for me. I like the former interpretation--that like Columbo, Spade sees human life as a collection of routines. But where Columbo is always looking for the things criminals do outside of their routine that trip them up, Spade seems to be focused on people's "foolish consistencies" as evidence of who they really are.

The real trick of it is, Sam Spade never explains what the parable means, so if this is a theme of The Maltese Falcon it's difficult to understand what that theme is supposed to be. He tells us what part he likes, so we can look for meaning there, but ultimately, like a Rorschach test, perhaps the meaning is in the eye of the beholder. Do you disapprove of the man for abandoning his first family the way he did, or like Sam do you understand him completely? Is it a story telling us to break the rules, or does it argue we can never escape them? Does the world not care one way or the other? Or is it telling us in far more words what Buckaroo Bonzai said so much more succinctly: "Wherever you go, there you are."

Give the "Flitcraft Parable" (or better yet, the whole book!) a read and let me know what you think.


GROVER January 18, 2009 at 6:41 AM  

I stumbled across your musings on the Flitcraft Parable after reading a paean to The Thin Man in the Wall Street Journal's Leisure & Arts section (Jan.17 & 18 issue). The WSJ recognized the 75 th anniversary of The Thin Man novel.
I've seen the film version of the Falcon numerous times but of course never realized I missed out on the parable.
You have inspired me to put the novel on my reading list.
Joseph Golaine

Alan January 20, 2009 at 11:54 AM  

Joseph -

Thanks for stopping by! The Maltese Falcon is a terrific novel, and one of those rare instances where the movie is as good as the book and vice versa. Of course, this has a lot to do with how the screenplay was written. I once read that when John Ford read the book he knew he wanted to film it, and to develop a screenplay he handed it off to his secretary and told her something like, "Take this book and write up everything they do and everything they say in screenplay form." And that, essentially, is how the movie was born--almost a direct translation from the book!

Hope you enjoy it--and let me know if you figure out what the Flitcraft Parable means!

Anonymous,  January 24, 2011 at 10:18 PM  

The Flitcraft parable is an intriguing literary device. I am impressed even though I've not read the book (although I am halfway through Red Harvest). It reminds me of a statement about Jesus in John's gospel: "Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name when they saw the signs which He did. But, for his part, Jesus did not believe in them, because He knew all men."

They may believe in him for now while the amazing signs are fresh, but like the falling beam, the miracles produced no lasting belief in them.

The beam represents the face of death, but the miracles are the face of God. People can be affected by either for the same duration, depending on what's inside them.

So, real faith means acting on a belief for the long haul, otherwise it's no good.


Aaron,  March 27, 2011 at 4:10 PM  

Agreed that the Flitcraft Parable expresses the theme of the novel. Spade is almost surely telling it as a warning to Brigid O'Shaughnessy, but I don't think he's referring to Brigid at all. Spade is referring to himself. He's like Flitcraft: he's looked at life with the lid off, he has no illusions, but just as Flitcraft ended up living a bourgeois life even without illusions, Spade will also end up "doing the right thing" even without any moral illusions. That means turning Brigid over to the police, as his job demands. Brigid isn't smart enough to pick up on the warning.

Philosophically, the Flitcraft Parable is presented as an unsolved mystery. Why do people continue to obey the most basic moral norms even after the moral foundations have been undermined and are no longer believed? Nobody knows why Flitcraft reverted to a normal life, not even Flitcraft himself. Same with Spade's actions at the end of the story. No one knows why Spade ultimately does the right thing - not the author, not the reader, not even Spade himself.

Alan Gratz March 27, 2011 at 11:33 PM  

Good stuff, Aaron! Thanks for your thoughts!

Anonymous,  August 18, 2011 at 11:13 AM  

Does any one know of a connection in Hammet's mind or others between Flitcraft aka Charles Pierce and the logician Charles S. Peirce?

Alan Gratz August 23, 2011 at 11:14 AM  

Ah, that's intriguing. No. I've never heard of a connection, but it would be very interesting to find out there was one!

Chuck Butcher December 30, 2011 at 7:01 PM  

It has been a couple years since I read "Falcon" but it seems to me that if you take the novel apart, it is also about the collision of the mundane and the extraordinary and the degree to which even the extraordinary is dictated by the ordinary mundane instincts. The Falcon itself is the epitome of ordinary masquerading as extraordinary, plaster and paint. The murder of Archer is in the end ordinary. The truly extraordinary is Spade, the supposed corrupt chameleon pursuing the mundane end of solving that murder and exposing the culprit. Even there, the mundane intrudes, what if the Falcon had been genuine?

Grover January 2, 2012 at 1:06 PM  

Poster Butcher poses an interesting question. What if the falcon was genuine? That would test Spade's morality and ethics to a greater extent.
J. Golaine

Alan Gratz January 26, 2012 at 3:42 PM  

Great stuff! (Sorry to weigh in later; I was traveling.) What IF the Falcon had been real? It would change things, wouldn't it?

We've had such a great discussion about this here, it makes me think that a number of essays about MF could be written and collected in a book. I'd certainly buy a copy!

cc young April 5, 2014 at 10:48 AM  

I think the answer ties in with Spade's blonde Satan.

Spade is the eye - he's the only one who's actually looking what's going on. Everyone else is wrapped in their roles. The parable is an anti-parable - it's the story itself. Spade is the eye. He sees, he understands. Nobody else around him does. The guy who broke out of his role fit back into another one.

(Even his allies, playing their roles, actually hinder him - Effie misjudges Brigid, the dick and the cop want him to mellow.)

He's simply saying he's the eye, a warning for the end monologue: he's not going to assume the romantic role, the sap role. He's seeing what's going on, unflinchingly.

And I think this is what makes him the blonde Satan: he doesn't don morality like choir robes, like the prescribed scenarios as preached from the pulpit. Among the ethics of role players, he is Satan.

Alan Gratz April 11, 2014 at 10:40 AM  

Good stuff, cc. Thanks for adding to the conversation! I continue to be fascinated by the Flitcraft Parable years after writing this post.

Alan Gratz April 11, 2014 at 10:40 AM  
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous,  December 14, 2014 at 2:46 AM  

If the Falcon had been genuine? What of it? Sam was alone with it and could have EASILY verified its authenticity and disappeared it. He didn't even try, he didn't care personally. If Sam wanted to be a successful wealthy crook in a town who's ins and outs he seems to know totally, Sam would be rich and successful. The dingus and the wealth it represented didn't interest him in the least. He was no Flitcraft and nothing would make him into one. His spots aren't changeable. Doing something about the murder of his partner Miles was the beginning and end of the story.

Anonymous,  January 26, 2015 at 2:27 PM  

I think the parable harkens back to T.S. Elliot's Hollow Men. Sam is saying that the meaning of life often escapes most people until something forces them to look at it (the beam). Looking, they see the essential hollowness of it (in most cases). Flitcraft flees it, after saying that it was hollow, and then seeks somthing different. He disappears easily because he has no significance. Not even his wife notitced much or cared. Here is the hard part. Most, like Flitcraft, never find meaning and fall back into empty ways. Nothing changed. No more beams fell and Flitcraft adjusted to that too, resuming his hollow existence, essentially unchanged. There sre none so blind as those who won't see. I think Sam tells the story as a test of Brigid. Is she perhaps someone who, like Sam, sees and eschews the hollow life?

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