Study Guide

The Maltese Falcon Tone

By Dashiell Hammett

Tone

Dark, Cynical

Since Hammett was a real-life detective, he had first-hand experience on how detectives act and talk. The Maltese Falcon is full of slang words that Hammett learned while working as a Pinkerton agent. Hammett is especially famous for the sharp rhythm and biting tone of his dialogue. We can practically hear Spade's words coming from a deep voice, made gruff with tobacco smoke. He's a man who has seen it all.

Ring… Ring… Ring… Anyone Gonna Answer That?

Hammett's extensive familiarity with detective work thus allows him to create an overall tone that is dark and cynical. Take, for example, the opening sentence of Chapter 2:

A telephone bell rang in darkness. When it had run three times bedsprings creaked, fingers fumbled on wood, something small and hard thudded on a carpeted floor, the springs creaked again, and a man's voice said: 'Hello…. Yes, speaking….. Dead?" (2.1)

What we're presented with in these two sentences is only what the narrator observes from the outside of objects and actions (as in, we're not in Spade's head. See "Narrator Point of View" for more on this). Now try to "audio-lize" (you know, as in, visualize sounds) all the different noises that we hear in this passage:

  • a telephone ringing in the darkness
  • bedsprings creaking
  • fingers fumbling against wood
  • something thudding on the carpet
  • and finally a man's voice.

This detailed description of a series of sounds evokes a foreboding feeling that something bad is about to happen. And that's pretty much the tone of the entire novel. Ominous and sinister.

And as for the cynical part, that's where Spade's voice comes in. We only get one half of the phone conversation, Spade's half. The dialogue here conveys messages beyond the literal meaning of the page's words. Hammett uses ellipses very effectively here: instead of getting to go inside Spade's head to see what he's thinking, we have to literally fill in the dots ourselves. Hammett thus creates an overall tone of cynicism by conveying the news of death with a complete lack of sentimentality.