Hammett: Fechheimer v. Spade

You know Terry Zobeck, if he notices some ref to Hammett he considers “off,” he’s on it like a dog on a bone. He spotted just such a remark in the obit for David Fechheimer.

Here’s Terry:

As Don deduced, Lawrence Block sent me the New York Times obituary for legendary PI David Fechheimer, knowing I’d be interested. As the obit notes, upon finishing The Maltese Falcon Fechheimer applied for a job with Hammett’s old outfit, the Pinkerton’s. He was hired for $2 an hour.

He had a life-long interest in Hammett, conducting some ground-breaking research into his life. Most notably he tracked down Hammett’s wife Jose Dolan Hammett and conducted the only known interview with her (City Magazine, November 4, 1975)—risking fearsome retribution from Lillian Hellman who was, up to that point, successful in keeping Jose away from reporters and potential biographers.

One comment attributed to him in an Esquire profile, however, really caught my attention. “Sam Spade may be the best detective in literature, but he’s still a lousy detective,” he told that magaine. “He never gets paid. He sleeps with his clients, and he winds up poor.”

This quote rang a bum note in my mind, especially coming from a guy who was inspired to pursue his career by reading the Falcon. Hammett held no illusions that Spade was in any way a realistic portrayal of a detective. In his introduction to the Modern Library edition of The Maltese Falcon he said as much: “Spade has no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been, and, in their cockier moments, thought they approached.”

At least at the beginning of his career, Fechheimer fit that bill.

And then there is that matter of Spade never getting paid. That’s just flat out wrong. As a matter of fact, Spade and Archer get paid right up front for the Falcon job—Brigid gives them $200 in the opening chapter, which leads a couple of chapters later to one of my favorite lines in the book. After Miles is killed (I trust this is not a spoiler for anyone here on the Mean Streets), Brigid confesses to Spade that her story was just that, a story.

Spade replies, “Oh, that. We didn’t exactly believe your story. We believed your two hundred dollars.”

Back in 1929 that was a good pay check for three day’s work—Spade’s share would amount to nearly $1,500 in today’s dollars—and knowing Sam, he probably kept Archer’s share.

Fechheimer was right about sleeping with the client—a bad, even unethical, move. But without that moral slip we wouldn’t have that powerful final scene between Sam and Brigid where he tells her he won’t play the sap for her.

In the end Hammett was writing a novel not a biography.

So opines Terry. He could have mentioned the scene in the Coronet where Spade takes a big roll of cash off Brigid and tells her that if she needs day-to-day folding money, she can pawn her jewelry. He takes $10,000 off the Fat Man, and but for circumstances might well have kept it.

No, Sam Spade got paid. Maybe Fechheimer conflated him at that moment with Philip Marlowe. . . .

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