Hammett: Rhea, Wilmer, or. . . ?

Mike Humbert refreshes his name in my Tag Cloud by sending in a link to a bit about The Maltese Falcon he’s found hanging out in the web — as he notes, it is an “Off-the-wall theory, but interesting. . . .”

The basic idea put forth by Marissa Skudlarek is that Gutman’s daughter Rhea in the novel (a character dropped by John Huston from the film version) and the young gunsel Wilmer Cook are the same person. 

If you’re interested in this sort of speculative litcrit, hop over and have a look, then come back and I’ll toss my two-bits into the aether. As Mike says, it is interesting, and it’ll get you thinking.

Back? Ready for more? Okay.

My favorite interpretation of the role of Rhea Gutman comes from the late, great Stan Old, who first suggested to me the idea that, like Wilmer, Rhea is another sex toy Gutman hauls around with him. Not his daughter, necessarily, but traveling under that cover. Overall in the plot of the novel, that makes more sense, and explains the dramatic scene where Wilmer blushes when Spade mentions the cuts on Rhea’s body — I’ve long thought that Hammett was referring to some sexual practise Wilmer and Rhea (perhaps under the tutelage of Gutman) were engaged in. One involving pins. No doubt someone out there is an expert on the subject, but the closest thing I have encountered to the idea for the time is Albert Fish, who inspired the legend that when they tried to fry him in the electric chair he shorted it out because of the large number of pins deeply embedded in his flesh and testicles. I think I can safely call Fish demented without offending anyone — child rapist and murderer, cannibal, the works.

The suggestion is that Gutman and crew are sick puppies, if you pick up on it — if not, the crime novel just rolls on and you wait to see whodunit.

Marissa is correct that Rhea only appears onstage for the one scene, where she is drugged in the hotel room. But she is first mentioned in Chapter XIV La Paloma — where Spade “went to the Alexandria. Gutman was not in. None of the other occupants of Gutman’s suite was in. Spade learned that these other occupants were the fat man’s secretary, Wilmer Cook, and his daughter Rhea, a brown-eyed fair-haired smallish girl of seventeen whom the hotel-staff said was beautiful. Spade was told that the Gutman party had arrived at the hotel, from New York, ten days before, and had not checked out.”

The way detective novels are written, it doesn’t sound as if Gutman checked in with Rhea one day and brought her in disguise as Wilmer to check in later — they checked in as a party and the staff saw a female, and apparently more than just one fleeting glimpse.

In Chapter XVII Saturday Night Spade asks the desk clerk, “‘These Gutmans — up in twelve C — are they in?'” Then we get the bit about how the Emergency Hospital crew Spade had called for Rhea had showed up and found no one. The clerk says, “‘. . .there was nobody up there. They went out earlier in the evening.'”

In Chapter XX If They Hang You Spade phones the cops and says, “‘They’ve just left here and they’re blowing town, so you’ll have to move fast, but I don’t think they’re expecting a pinch. . . . There’s a girl in it too — Gutman’s daughter.’ He described Rhea Gutman. ‘Watch yourself when you go up against the kid. He’s supposed to be pretty good with the gun. . . .'” Again, unless a very, very clever cross-dresser has pulled the wool over Spade’s eyes, at the end of the novel he believes Rhea and Wilmer are distinct individuals.

And if you dig around in the novel you’ll find more details, which could be made to go either way — in the one Rhea scene she has “dulled golden-brown eyes” and while they’re waiting for Effie to bring in the black bird in Chapter XVII The Fall-Guy we learn that the “boy’s eyes were cold hazel gleams.” Hazel and golden-brown are close enough, but the other details just don’t flow — in particular, I think it is a giant stretch to think it means anything that Spade first carries Rhea into a room with masculine items laying around, then crosses a hall and finds a room with female items and leaves her there.

But I did enjoy the idea of “doubling” — and you can contemplate it in various other ways, not just Rhea-is-Wilmer. If Rhea and Wilmer are both used to sate the sexual appetites of Gutman, then their similar physical appearance make them his type, and Janus figures.

And I don’t recall thinking much about it before, but Rhea is something of a shadow-figure for Brigid, an echo of sorts — both female, criminals traveling the world on a treasure hunt, skilled in lying. . . a reflection further down in a hall of mirrors.

And even better, Rhea is a thematic halfway point toward the character Floyd Thursby, famous because he never appears onstage in the novel — we only hear about Thursby at secondhand, but we have no doubt that he exists. Rhea appears onstage in the one scene, and like Thursby is mentioned on other occasions, but I see no textual reason to think she doesn’t exist (or is running around disguised as Wilmer most of the time).

I do like the idea that Hammett is playing with the tonality, the richly detailed onstage characters, the almost non-existent daughter, the fully offstage gunman. . . . Yeah, that hall of mirrors effect.

And of course, if you want to explore some real cross-dressing in Hammett, don’t miss the 1925 Op tale “Mike, Alec or Rufus” which Frederic Dannay reprinted under the title “Tom, Dick or Harry” in The Creeping Siamese. Rhea, Wilmer or. . . ?

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