(Note: this post contains spoilers about the novel The Maltese Falcon as well as oversimplification of its complex plot.)
Last night I finished rereading The Maltese Falcon, my "welcome to San Francisco" book. I first read it in high school, for a course about detective fiction through the ages. I remember coming into class where everyone was buzzing about the twist ending: "The falcon was a fake all along!"
"Yeah," I said, "but didn't you notice the other twist?"
"Rhea and Wilmer are the same person!"
But no one else had picked up on what I thought was the most subtle and fascinating element of The Maltese Falcon. I wrote an essay about it, and ended up submitting it with a few college applications that wanted to see one of my academic papers. (My teacher explained that everyone thinks they know The Maltese Falcon from seeing the movie, so they'll be blown away by a paper that tells them they have it all wrong. Also, a student who writes about a pulp detective novel will stand out from the multitudes who write about Of Mice and Men or The Great Gatsby.) Sometimes, I credit this paper with getting me into Vassar.
Let me explain my theory. OK, the basic plot of The Maltese Falcon has detective Sam Spade agreeing to help some shady characters get their hands on a valuable statuette, in exchange for a cut of the profits. The criminals are:
- Gutman, a jovial fat man, ringleader of the gang
- Joel Cairo, an effeminate homosexual Greek man
- Brigid O'Shaughnessy, beautiful femme fatale
- Wilmer Cook, surly boy (18-20 years old?), handy with a gun
Indeed, the character of Rhea raises so many problematic questions that the movie version tinkered with the plot and eliminated her entirely.
When Spade catches up with the criminals, he tells Gutman "That daughter of yours has a nice belly...too nice to be scratched up with pins." Gutman says nothing. But Wilmer steps forward and raises his gun: "Everyone in the room looked at him. In the dissimilar eyes with which Brigid O'Shaughnessy and Joel Cairo looked at him there was, oddly, something identically reproving. The boy blushed, drew back his advanced foot, straightened his legs, lowered the pistol and stood as he had stood before, looking under lashes that hid his eyes at Spade's chest. The blush was pale enough, and lasted for only an instant, but it was startling on his face that habitually was so cold and composed."
As soon as I read that passage, I felt certain that Wilmer was Rhea in disguise. Why else would he/she react so violently? Why else would there be such an odd look of reproach from Brigid and Joel? Why else would Wilmer blush? I started looking for other clues that supported my theory.
The physical appearance of the two characters is similar. Wilmer is "an undersized youth," Rhea is "a small girl." There are many references to Wilmer's cold white complexion, and Rhea has a "face that was white and dim." Wilmer has hazel eyes, Rhea has golden-brown eyes. Also, though Wilmer talks tough and packs heat, his "long curling eyelashes" are feminine. And he is always described as having a "composed," "low," "flat" voice--the voice that a girl would need to adopt if she was disguising herself as a man. (This is why I assume it's Rhea in disguise as Wilmer and not the other way around. It's easier for a girl to look like a young man in coat and cap, than for a boy to look convincingly like a beautiful young woman in satin pajamas.)
Then there is the odd doubling where Spade easily lifts and carries both Rhea and Wilmer at different moments. When Rhea falls asleep after being drugged, "Spade caught her up in his arms—scooped her up as she sank—and [held] her easily against his chest." Later, after Spade knocks Wilmer out in a fight, "He put his right arm under the boy’s arm and around his back, lifted him without apparent effort, and carried him to the sofa."
Furthermore, when Spade tries to carry Rhea to her bedroom, he first opens the door of a room where "the clothing...and the things on the chiffonier said it was a man’s room”--so he turns around and finds a "room that was feminine in its accessories." Now, this does sound like Rhea and Wilmer are two different people with two separate bedrooms. But the very fact that Dashiell Hammett included this detail--if Spade had found Rhea's bedroom on the first try, the plot would not be affected--makes me think that something else is going on. Maybe Gutman planned ahead and put the two sets of clothing/toiletries in two different rooms on purpose. If a detective broke in and searched the hotel suite, for instance, he would be very confused to see one bedroom with both female and male clothing in it--but not if there were two separate bedrooms. Also, because Spade first carries Rhea into the male room, it seems to symbolize that she truly belongs there.
Now, the traditional interpretation of the character of Wilmer is that he is gay and possibly involved with Gutman. Spade contemptuously calls Wilmer a "gunsel," which sounds like it means "guy with a gun," but is actually an old term for the passive partner in a homosexual relationship. There's a long scene where Spade tries to persuade the criminals that they need "a fall-guy" and Wilmer is just the person for the job. Gutman protests--maybe it's because Wilmer is his young lover, but wouldn't it be even more powerful if Spade is threatening to send Gutman's own daughter, Rhea, to jail?
Gutman eventually gives in, but twice says he loves Wilmer like a son: "I'm sorry indeed to lose you, and I want you to know that I couldn't be any fonder of you if you were my own son; but--well, by Gad!--if you lose a son it's possible to get another--and there's only one Maltese falcon." Mightn't this be an attempt to say some final paternal words to Rhea, without revealing the true situation to Spade? The final chapters of The Maltese Falcon are tense and twisty without thinking that Rhea and Wilmer are the same person--but if you go back and reread them from this angle, they become even more interesting.
However, Spade's plan falls through, and we learn at the end that Wilmer has shot Gutman to death (presumably for trying to sell him out). So if you think that this is a disguised girl shooting her own father--why, it's positively Oedipal! (And as my teacher would be quick to remind me, Oedipus Rex is one of the first detective stories of Western literature.)
I enjoy thinking that Rhea, Gutman's pretty blonde daughter, dresses up like a tough boy and goes around cursing at people and threatening to shoot them. It gives the novel an ironic twist and adds to the theme of gender confusion (cf. Cairo's homosexuality, Spade's "boyish" but attractive secretary, etc.) Still, after rereading the novel, I'm not sure if this is "really" what Hammett intended--not sure if the time frames all work out correctly. For instance, in order to wake Rhea up in time to disguise herself as Wilmer, Gutman would need an antidote to the knock-out drops, and does that even exist?
So maybe there's no elaborate subterfuge of Rhea disguising herself as Wilmer. But you can't deny that Hammett sets up a doubling between the two characters--the daughter that Gutman ignores and the young man that he "loves like a son." Still, when Gutman says those words to Wilmer, there's an ominous chill to them. He may love the boy like a son, but we know that he has no compunctions about slipping his own daughter a Mickey Finn...
Image: Humphrey Bogart as Spade and Elisha Cook Jr. as Wilmer from the 1941 movie. Photo from filmsquish.com