Leading up to a 75th anniversary theatrical viewing of The Maltese Falcon, I've been re-watching Huston's classic adaption and re-reading Hammett's novel. It remains a favorite, though I see through different eyes now that I'm about the age of Spade's ill-fated partner, Miles Archer, than I did when I read and watched it repeatedly as a bookish pre-teen who had just discovered film noir and the novels of Hammett and Chandler.
Joel Cairo is, even more so than the women of The Maltese Falcon, less a character than a collection of stereotypes. He doesn't go anywhere without mincing steps. His voice is effeminate. He's expected to take being slapped, and like it.
He's also the only character in novel defined by his ethnicity. Gutman is probably German. O'Shaughnessy must be Irish. But neither of them are identified as the Irish, or the German, the way Cairo is consistently identified in the text as "the Levantine." He even gets a chapter named for him that way.
Cairo carries a Greek passport, among others, and Gutman, if I recall, refers to him as a Greek at some point in either the movie or the novel, but his wallet contains a note written in Arabic, and I don't think we'd imagine Cairo is a Greek name. He's probably Palestinian then, or Syrian, and that fact he's an effeminate queer earns him nothing but barely concealed contempt from the author.
Is it crazy to wonder if Hammett isn't perhaps showing signs of some repression by setting his story in San Francisco and treating his most prominent gay character so shabbily? (I say "most prominent" because I think we are supposed to infer by his stroking of Wilmer's head after Gutman agrees to let him be Spade's fall guy that Wilmer is a ... kept boy?) Hammett was actively left-wing throughout his life and, while progressive activism isn't a guarantee of open-mindedness to all ways of life and freedom from prejudice, it's a little surprising he seems so contemptuous of a character he crafted to be an underdog twice over. Hammett had children, was married, and had relationships with women throughout his adult life, there's no evidence I can see that he was gay or bi.
The times, I guess. We chalk this less-than-gallant portrayal of a homosexual Levantine up to mere parochialism and prejudice of the era.
Unless we're supposed to see how unfair he's being, and in recognizing the unfairness, hold him, ourselves, and a society that tolerates that unfairness accountable for their shortcomings. I'd prefer to think Hammett was doing undercover work here, and not merely taking cheap shots at an exotic Other to pander.