Finding Brigid O’Shaughnessy (and the Maltese Falcon)

I know a guy who knew Brigid O’Shaughnessy.  His name was Joe Gores.  And she was real.  It’s a great story. 

Brigid, as you know, was the seductive murderess who drove Sam Spade to hunt down The Maltese Falcon  in Dashiell Hammett’s masterpiece of hard-boiled detective fiction.  Hammett had been a Pinkerton agent in San Francisco in the 1920s.  Joe Gores, who died last year, was a repo man in San Francisco.  That’s where this story begins.Way back in the last century, I met Gores, author of the great DKA Files mystery series.  I invited him to my ratty flat in Berkeley for coffee and to talk fiction.  Evening drew on.  Shadow came into the room.  The conversation turned noirish.  He began to tell me about Brigid O’Shaughnessy.

Gores knew Frisco as well as Hammett had known the town, from the street level.  Much of Hammett’s old city was still there when Gores scoured the streets as a repo man.  The Maltese Falcon is a good street guide and Gores knew Hammett had used his own apartment and other of his haunts for scenes in the book.  He went to find Sam Spade’s apartment.  It was for rent.  He moved in.  Ha!

The idea came to him, he said, in Sam Spade’s apartment that maybe he could find the people in the book.  He knew Hammett had used characters from his detective career in his stories.  Why not see if any of those in the Falcon were real and, even at this late year, still lived in the city?

He started with the places where Spade’s partner Archer and the bodyguard Thursby had been shot, the events that open the story, but those leads went nowhere.  He couldn’t find the fat man, either – Caspar Gutman.  I would’ve liked to meet Gutman.  Nor could he find Joel Cairo or the jittery gunsel, Wilmer, with his brace of .45s.  Oh, they may have existed in some form in Hammett’s old case files, but they had not themselves been living people.

That left the fabulous femme fatale, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the woman who very nearly outsmarted Sam Spade.  To his surprise, Gores came across some evidence that she was real.  One of Hammett’s lovers in the ‘20s.  But who was she really and was she anything like the character in the book?

The more Gores thought about her, the more Brigid got under his skin, as she had gotten under Sam Spade’s.  He had to find her.  He got a lead on an old woman – a very old woman – living in Mexico.

Here is where the story gets great: He went to Mexico.  Knocked on her door.  And there she was – Brigid O’Shaughnessy.  He knew the first moment he saw her.  Oh, she had another name, her real name.  And she was an antique.  But she was still beautiful.  And, Gores told me, a marvelous and relentless liar, a charmer, a schemer, a sexy manipulator.  She was the Brigid of the book in spades (pardon the pun).  All the while he sat in her living room drinking her tea she worked to seduce him, to overpower him with the charm that nearly doomed Sam Spade.  It was automatic with her.  She couldn’t help herself.  Wonderful!

But she hadn’t read the book.  Never heard of it.  Hadn’t seen the 1941 film with Humphrey Bogart as Spade and Mary Astor playing Brigid.  She wasn’t interested in those things.  She was only interested in enthralling and capturing Joe Gores.

There was a marveling wonder in his face as he told me he barely got out of that tea party with his skin.  Barely able to shake off her hypnotic charm.  Yes, there was a Brigid O’Shaughnessy and, yes, she was everything Sam Spade saw in her.

After Joe Gores left to go across the Bay Bridge to the city and home, I sat there in the shadows and thought about the real Brigid O’Shaughnessy and had to wonder, Would I have had Joe Gores’ strength – and Dashiell Hammett’s – to escape her?  Would I want to?