A leaden sky shielded London from the winter sun as I kept my appointment with Casper Gutman Antiques. Still in business after more than a century, it sits tucked away on one of those dead-end side streets not far from the Diogenes Club. With their customary courtesy they were letting me consult their founder’s private collection of books on the Crusades.
Sheer fantasy, but a man can dream. Since his appearance in Dashiell Hammett’s novel, The Maltese Falcon (1930), Casper Gutman has been a classic champagne villain, an urbane mastermind behind a ring of thugs and thieves of varying levels of competence. His timeless portrayal by Sydney Greenstreet in John Huston’s 1941 film of Hammett’s novel set the standard for how people think of Gutman. Equally captivating is Peter Vaughan’s performance in 1984 as Gutman in a BBC radio version of The Maltese Falcon. Both English actors brilliantly conveyed Gutman’s deceptively jovial yet utterly ruthless character. As Hammett described him, “his face was a watchful-eyed smiling mask held up between his thoughts” and a private detective come to see him.
If nothing else, Gutman’s smiling mask of a face reminds us that it is impossible to trust a man who is always smiling. Either he is simply a grinning idiot, and only a fool would trust a grinning idiot, or he is a phony. After all, it is a salesman’s trick: when a salesman smiles, the customer smiles, and when a customer smiles, thrift and self-control ebb away.
Derek Sculthorpe, in The Life and Times of Sydney Greenstreet (2018), summed up Gutman’s complex character with two words, “erudition and decadence,” and the obese, epicurean Gutman can serve as an example for the many uses of history. Practical approaches to history have a long history themselves, so that in the Book of Esther (6:1), we read, “On that night the king could not sleep; and he gave orders to bring the book of memorable deeds, the chronicles, and they were read before the king.” Far from using history as a cure for insomnia, Gutman used it like a map to find hidden treasure.
Others may work out parallels between Casper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon and Long John Silver in Treasure Island. Here what intrigues is Gutman as a rogue historian. At some point, maybe around 1900, Gutman became interested in tales of a sixteenth-century falcon associated with one of the last company of Crusaders, and his interest grew into an obsession. His life’s quest became hunting for that falcon.
According to Gutman, in 1530 the Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, also known as the Knights of Rhodes, sent to Charles V, the King of Spain, one falcon as annual rent for the use of Malta, Gozo, and Tripoli. As Gutman explained to that visiting detective, the knights sent “Not an insignificant live bird, but a glorious golden falcon encrusted from head to foot with the finest jewels in their coffers.” During the Carlist Wars in the 1840s, its owner camouflaged the bird by covering it with black enamel.
In order to learn the falcon’s history, Gutman pored over annals and memoirs in three languages, English, French, and Italian. He consulted the archives of the Order in Malta, and his researches traced the falcon’s chain of ownership through the centuries, down to the early twentieth century and a Greek antique dealer in Paris. In 1913 an item in The Times of London reported the dealer had been murdered and his shop burgled. Over the next seventeen years, Gutman traveled from London to Paris, from Constantinople to San Francisco in search of that fabled black bird.
When the detective Gutman is addressing seems skeptical, Gutman tells him, “These are facts, historical facts, not schoolbook history, not Mr. Wells’ history, but history nevertheless.” Gutman meant H. G. Wells’ best-selling volume, The Outline of History (1920), setting forth a secular overview of world history. In 1925 Wells’ book received a Catholic rebuttal from G. K. Chesterton in the form of his book, The Everlasting Man.
What drove Gutman’s historical fascination beyond popular books was avarice, not as a collector, but as a merchant. He coveted the falcon for the untold wealth it would bring when sold for its gold and gems. However, even that motivation served a more basic urge, gratifying his craving for luxurious comfort.
Despite Gutman having been married, and his daughter, Rhea, traveling with him, a subtext of Hammett’s novel implies Gutman also had an eye for compliant young men. Along with pleasures of the flesh and an appreciation of gourmet dining, Gutman’s tastes and appetites included tailored suits, Johnnie Walker whiskey, and Corona del Ritz cigars.
Fat and eloquent, tenaciously curious about finer details of Western culture, Gutman bears superficial resemblance to Chesterton. On the surface, Gutman shared Chesterton’s love of history and his gift for succinct exposition. As Sculthorpe observed, although decadent, Gutman was erudite.
For instance, Gutman’s concise and organized lecture to a cynical detective indicates that, had he wished, Gutman could have become a history professor. Chesterton would have agreed with Gutman’s epigram, “Talking’s something you can’t do judiciously unless you keep in practice.” Moreover, Gutman’s whiskey toast, albeit for him insincere, serves as a good motto for us all: “Here’s to plain speaking and clear understanding.”
All the same, Gutman stands as an Un-Chesterton, lacking Chesterton’s faith and integrity. Along with sexual morality, a major point where Gutman diverged from Chesterton was in worshipping a false god. In the end, Gutman’s golden falcon becomes just another golden calf.
In its review of Huston’s film of The Maltese Falcon, The Los Angeles Times in its 14 October, 1941, edition sniffed, “There isn’t an honest motive in the entire cast,” but conceded, “which is why we accept the characters as real people.” As it happens, Hammett modeled Gutman on a real person.
In his preface to the 1934 edition of The Maltese Falcon, Hammett wrote that Gutman’s prototype was a man he encountered when Hammett worked as a Pinkerton detective. That man “was suspected—foolishly, as most people were—of being a German secret agent in Washington, D. C., in the early days of the [First World] war, and I never remember shadowing a man who bored me as much.” From such a dull and innocent quarry came one of literature’s most interesting scoundrels.