Many people, of all races and ethnicities, are saying it feels different this time. With George Floyd’s killing, white America has finally gotten its long-overdue wake-up call. And, yes, it feels different to me, too. What I’m troubled by, though, is that word feel. What if it feels different but isn’t? Marriage vows, some would say, are merely testimony to the power of our present feelings, feelings we can’t imagine will ever change. They do, though.
Since George Floyd’s death I’ve been haunted by an interpolated tale in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. In it, Sam Spade tells Brigid O’Shaughnessy the story of a man named Flitcraft, who disappears one day only to turn up unexpectedly in another city five years later. As she listens to the story, Brigid seems to be asking herself the same question the reader is asking: Why is Spade telling her this story in the first place, given that they’re in the middle of trying to untangle an entirely unrelated murder plot? What does Flitcraft have to do with her? Moreover, why is Hammett pausing the main narrative to tell a second tale that appears to be apropos of absolutely nothing? As a puzzled Brigid listens, however, she gradually becomes more fully engaged, as if she’s glimpsed Spade’s purpose, which in turn signals that the reader would also do well to pay attention. Because while the Flitcraft story may be a darling Hammett couldn’t bring himself to kill, it may also be at the heart of everything. In other words, it might just be a parable, and not a few of these are warnings.