I have an explicit definition of a violent scene. It has to have the characters punching, kicking, pushing and screaming, fist fighting, teeth knocking, stabbing, and seriously injuring each other. If there is no blood splatter or broken teeth, jaws, or bones then what is the point. There is some blood and fist in The Maltese Falcon but not as much as I like. The violence is all very civilized. Probably it is a generational thing; probably 1930s civilized violence is equal to today’s violent TV shows The Following and Sons of Anarchy.
For the moment, I am keeping my prejudices aside and thinking as if I am living in 1932. This allows me to consider Sam Spade as a violent man. Spade’s violence was less physical but more mental. One of the last chapter in The Maltese Falcon is a long scene, in which Spade mind twists fat Gutman, boy Wilmer, “fairy” Cairo, and siren O’Shaughnessy to figure out the murderer of his partner Miles Archer and Captain Jacobi of the ship La Paloma. There is little physical violence in this scene. Gutman and Cairo manhandle Wilmer; Spade punches Wilmer. Yet, the tension leaps out of the page.
This scene forces me to analyze my pre-set notions of violent scenes. Violence in a scene doesn’t need to be entirely physical. Instead it can be psychological, provided the writer follows Dashiell Hammett’s example. The writer needs to build the threat of violence throughout the book. In The Maltese Falcon, Spade was waiting for an opportunity to get back at Wilmer from almost the start. Of-course, even the most mental violent scene has to have some degree of physical altercation. Be it a slap or fist of Sam Spade.
This questions the need of a violent scene. A scene with violence is the ultimate display of the characters’ strength and weakness. It forces the characters to reveal themselves. A violent scene sometimes helps declare the winner. If the violent scene was early in the mystery book, then the bad guy would win, so the reader can rally behind the good guy. Whereas if the violent scene is near the end of the mystery book, the good guy has to and will be the winner. A mystery book needs to have a resolution and make sure the good wins over bad.
For instance the above mentioned chapter in The Maltese Falcon, functions to reveal the anxiety, pecking order, and save-your-own-ass attitude of fat Gutman’s gang. Gutman and Cairo are ready to burn Wilmer to save themselves, so they can continue their quest to find the falcon. In this scene, it is the first time Spade has an upper hand over Gutman, Cairo, and Wilmer. This scene allows Spade’s character to get back at Wilmer. Of-course psychologically and physiologically our hero the good guy–Spade is the clear winner.
Throughout The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade’s motives are unclear. Initially Spade is seeking Archer’s killer, then it seems his loyalty is sidetracked. It seems Spade has succumbed to chase the falcon to earn finder’s fee from Gutman. Only near the end Spades planning, motives, and intelligence becomes clear. If not for the scene in which Spade shakes his fist as Cairo, Spade–despite his charm and hard-boiled detective attitude–would not be seen as the good guy.