I’m going to look at the guy who got me into PI/Noir in the first place: Sam Spade. I have always loved this character. The tough-talking, no nonsense, epitome of hard-boiled PI set the bar for detective fiction. For me. I never was able to identify as well with Nick Charles or the Continental Op. For me it’s always been Sam Spade.
And I confess I’m still unsure as to why Otto Penzler would say that this is not a noir story. According to Otto, Sam recognizes that there is a morality when Sam recognizes that he is supposed to do something when his partner dies. But Sam readily admits that this about business, not about morality. Letting Brigid get away with murder reflects badly on him as a PI, reflects badly on all detectives, for that matter. Additionally, the decision he makes is ultimately selfish and out of a desire not to be the sap for her. He is savvy, recognizing that Brigid would always have something on him if they ran away together. This is very far from a moral choice to bring her to justice.
For that matter, Sam is nowhere close to a moral paragon as he admits he never thought much of Miles. He even had an affair with the man’s wife! Ultimately, Sam is a user of people, only tolerating them so long as it is to his benefit or until they prove themselves to be an inconvenience.
Sam’s choice to ostensibly do the right thing doesn’t benefit him, either. He is left at the end of the story with no clients, no payment for services, no love in his life, no partner. The best that can be said is that he still has his loyal secretary, Effie Perine. Oh, and he didn’t go to jail for murder.
He is worse off at the end of the story than he was at the beginning. Despite being the one to solve the murder of his partner, such a strike will be hard to overcome, which is why he insisted on removing Miles’s name from the agency right away (again, no thought of morality or memory of his partner in this decision, simply business). He will likely still have to deal with Eva Archer in the future as she doesn’t take rejection well. Tom Polhouse is friendly enough towards Sam, but Lt. Dundy will definitely watch Sam with skepticism.
Sam is not doomed like Walter Nef, but this is not a story that truly ends happily. In fact, the argument can be made that Nef gets off easy in the end, whereas Sam must struggle on in this morally bankrupt world. No wonder so many detectives turn to the bottle in the desk.
To be continued.