Here's introducing today's guest post from Leigh Glasgow!
In the early 1920s a former private detective turned to writing after growing weary of his duties as a detective. His name was Dashiell Hammett. He became a prodigious writer, creating over a hundred short stories and five novels. However, despite this large output and the high regard many of his books are held in, the primary reason he is remembered today is because he introduced a new type of character to the world of fiction: the hardboiled private eye.
The hardboiled detective of Hammet’s most famous work, the Maltese Falcon, was Sam Spade. Most people will recognise the name of the Maltese Falcon, either from the book (it is regularly rated in the top 100 best English language novels of the 20th century), an audio play version, or from one of the many film versions (the classic 1941 version starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade being the most likely).
The Maltese Falcon is a classic of the mystery genre - its story weaving around two separate mysteries, with the hero of the story, private eye Sam Spade, both searching for the killer of his partner and for the Maltese Falcon that gives its name to the story. But even more than the main plotline, the writing of the book is such that small vignettes, patches of story, can remain in the readers mind for months and years to come.
One particular vignette from the Maltese Falcon has stayed with me ever since I read it for the first time a few years ago. The vignette is known as the Flitcraft Parable. It tells the story of a person making the decision to completely upend their life and to make the changes they felt they needed to make. It is a tale that is poignant and speaks of the inherent dichotomy I have always found in ‘change’: that it is easy at first to make a change in your life, but that it is hard to maintain that change over the long run.
The Flitcraft Parable takes place while our hero Sam Spade is waiting for a telephone call. He is waiting with the leading lady of the Maltese Falcon, Ms Brigid O’Shaughnessy. To kill time, Spade begins to tell Ms O’Shaughnessy a tale from his earlier career, about a man from Tacoma called Flitcraft. Flitcraft was a well-to-do man, he owned his own successful business, was married with a wife and two kids, played golf regularly, had a good car and seemed happy with life. Then one day, he left his office, went to lunch, and disappeared without a trace. To quote Spade, ‘He went like that… like a fist when you open your hand.’. The police searched for him, but there was no sign. No sign that he had planned his disappearance, no sign of another love interest, no sign of violence or kidnapping. The case went cold.
Five years later, Mrs Flitcraft hired Spade to investigate a rumour that a man matching Flitcraft’s description had been seen in Spokane. Spade investigated and found Flitcraft living under a new name, with a new wife, a baby son, a new business, home, car, and regularly playing golf just like before. In other words, he had started a brand new life, but the same as before.
Upon meeting, Flitcraft tried to explain the reasons that had driven him to leave his old life behind. It all started on that very lunchtime on the day of his disappearance. Flitcraft was going to his usual restaurant for lunch, his mind was on a deal he wanted to conclude in the afternoon and the golf game he had organised for afterwards. He was happy and content with his life. As he passed a high-rise construction site, a beam fell 8 or 10 stories and smacked the sidewalk alongside him. It passed within inches of him, but it didn’t touch him. The only damage he received was from a piece of the sidewalk which flew up and hit him, cutting his cheek. He was stunned. ‘He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.’ Realising that he was only alive due to random chance, and that he could be killed at any minute by any sort of accident, he decided to change his life and let random chance be the driving factor in his life. And so he did, leaving directly after lunch, wandering the US South West, as chance would take him. Eventually random chance brought him to Spokane and that was where he once again settled down into a more sedentary life.
The story ends shortly after that: Flitcraft and his first wife have a quiet divorce, and everyone gets on with their lives, an unassuming end to a most remarkable tale. The tale is even more remarkable for its existence in a genre that usually decided to break up quiet sections with a dash of violence and the addition of a new dead body on the scene.
For me though, the story is most remarkable for the 'changes' that Flitcraft undergoes, and the events that precipitate it. These are best summarised to me by a line which perhaps more than any other in the Maltese Falcon has stayed with me the longest: ‘He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and so he adjusted himself to them not falling.’
An event, THE EVENT, is - as much in literature, as in life - the best catalyst for change in a person’s life. Inertia affects not just objects, but people as well. We have all experienced it, those times in our life when we are unhappy with the course our life has taken, but we are too busy, too tired and too frightened to make the changes necessary to get out of that groove. An event is by far the easiest way to force ourselves on to a new track. The nature of the event is unimportant. Some we can initiate by ourselves - changing schools, going to university, starting a new job, leaving an old one, moving to a new house / city / country, or simply going to a new pub, or on a long holiday - can all change our life dramatically. External events can also have the same effect - losing a job, a relationship breaking up or finishing school/university; however, the easiest way of initiating change is too initiate the event ourselves. Otherwise we rely on the random chance that Flitcraft experienced, and rarely is that a good event, one that we will enjoy.
I have undergone numerous changes in my life, some self-inflicted (moving from Australia to the UK after university), others forced upon me (being denied a visa to remain in the UK). But perhaps the most meaningful and long-lasting for me was moving from my small home town to university in Sydney. Having been a relatively introverted, sheltered child, I found myself 600 km from home, in a city of 4.5 million people and living in a shared dorm with total strangers. Faced with this, there was the greatest temptation to remain introverted, and to bury myself in my studies. But thankfully, I made the choice to change. I chose to join in university life, to experience all that Sydney had to offer, and to make a host of new friends on the way. In other words I changed myself in order to become the person that I actually wanted to be.
Since that time, there have been numerous occasions when I have been tempted to fall back into the introverted lifestyle. My life has seen me move locations for work, to new cities, new countries even, where I did not know a single soul, and where the culture was completely alien to me. In these circumstances, there is a definite temptation to revert to my old ways. However, when I find myself slipping back into introversion, I always think back on those university years in Sydney and the fun I had. Those memories spur me on to go out and meet new people and find new places in the world that excite me.
To change your world, it is as easy as that: meet new people and find new places in the world that excite you. New memories, new experiences, new friends - these are the ultimate rewards of change.
Leigh Glasgow is an aerospace engineer and world traveller. Having worked his way across Australia, Europe, the Middle East and Asia, he has finally settled down in Germany. He continues to explore the world and to experience new and exciting adventures, from zip-lining in Laos, karaoke in Japan and hiking in the Himalayas, to getting lost in London. He hopes to see you out there...