“True character can be hidden in those details….They are the nuances that create an empathic strike between your character and reader.” – Writing Mysteries, Michael Connelly
The Maltese Falcon wouldn’t be the same book without them. They tell you what kind of story you’re reading. It’s gritty. It’s dark. The mood is ominous. Cigarettes pull the modern reader back in time, to an era before health awareness and social stigma banished the omnipresent cigarette from indoor spaces. Perhaps most important, cigarettes show us who the characters are and what they’re feeling.
For example, near the beginning of the book, Miss Wonderly/O’Shaughnessy enters Spade’s office for the first time. Spade, our protagonist, is alone. The sounds of typing and construction ae in the background.
And then Hammett introduces cigarettes:
“On Spade’s desk a limp cigarette smoldered in a brass tray filled with the remains of limp cigarettes. Ragged grey flakes of cigarette-ash dotted the yellow top of the desk and the green blotter and the papers that were there. A buff-curtained window, eight or ten inches open, let in from the court a current of air faintly scented with ammonia. The ashes on the desk twitched and crawled in the current.”
Hammett describes Spade sitting at a desk with a limp cigarette smoldering in a tray with other limp cigarettes, deliberately using the same word twice in one sentence. Externally, Spade appears bored, polite, and unengaged. However, the flakes of his cigarettes are described as ragged, and the ashes twitch and crawl across the room. The reader is left uneasy, (as is his client).
Spade rolls his cigarettes slowly and deliberately whenever he needs to think. When Spade learns his partner has been killed, he sits quietly and makes a cigarette, an act described in a sentence so long it becomes an entire paragraph. Hammett doesn’t tell us that Spade is trying to figure out what has happened, or what he is going to do next, or even how he feels. Instead, he shows Spade rolling a single cigarette over 510 straight words. Next, using only 29 words, Hammett describes Spade lighting his cigarette, indicating that he is moving from thought to action, or perhaps from shock to acceptance. Finally, Spade’s path set and his mind clear, with just five words Hammett describes him removing his pajamas in order to get dressed.
After Space has an unpleasant encounter with the police, who accuse him of killing his partner, cigarettes help provide another interesting glimpse into Spade’s inner life, as well as the character of his loyal and long-suffering secretary Effie Perine. Numb and exhausted, Spade sits in his office. He holds his tobacco-sack with inert fingers. Effie takes it from him and makes him a cigarette. Hammet describes Effie’s actions in extreme detail. She separates the cigarette-paper from the packet. She sifts the tobacco into it. Her thin fingers shape the cigarette. She licks it. She smooths it. During the majority of their conversation about his legal troubles, Spade is passive, while Effie is in constant motion, soothing him, making him a cigarette, asking him helpful questions. She even puts the rolled cigarette in his mouth for him. She makes a perfectly reasonable assumption about who may have killed his partner, and this question finally rouses Spade. He is amused, and insults her intelligence. Focused and alert again, ready for his next step, he rolls the next cigarette for himself.
A final example uses a cigar, instead of a cigarette. When Spade’s lawyer is introduced, he is described as a small man with a shrill voice who couldn’t care less that Spade’s partner is dead, or why. When Spade barges into the lawyers office to seek legal advice, the lawyer “flourishes” a cold cigar-stub at Spade. The cigar is a simple and effective symbol of the lawyer’s prosperity. The cigar’s coldness reflects his lack of passion and empathy. His gesture with it indicates his lack of affection towards his clients, and his view of work. He gives Spade the advice he needs, but their relationship is strictly transactional, and without warmth.
Connelly writes that everything must be in service to character. Dashiell Hammett uses cigarettes effectively to do just that.