Monday, September 26, 2011

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

I love noir and detective novels, but have huge gaps in my bibliography, so I'm trying to go back and read some of the old classics. Dashiell Hammett is an obvious place to start and, as I love the film version of the novel, figured I would track down a copy of The Maltese Falcon and give it a whirl.

Sam Spade, the private detective who is The Maltese Falcon's protagonist, is probably my favorite literary detective I've come across yet. He is cold, rational, has a genius for detail and knows how to handle the ladies whether he's bestowing them with sexy caresses or slapping some sense into them. Like most anti-heroes, he also has a strict code of personal justice he adheres to, even when laughing in the face of the law.

Spade's new client is Miss Wonderly, who hires himself and his partner Miles to follow a man, Thursby, and her runaway sister. Miles turns up dead later that night and Thursby a few hours later, making Spade a suspect, partly due to his affair with Miles's wife. Spade discovers that Miss Wonderly is actually Brigid O'Shaughnessy and she was after Thursby, not a made-up sister. He also gets a new client, the slimy, effeminate Joel Cairo, who offers him a lot of money to find and return a black statue of a bird that has shown up in San Francisco but is allegedly stolen property. Cairo attempts to double-cross Spade, believing for some reason that he has the statue.

Spade puts two and two together and realizes that Brigid and Cairo are connected. He sets up a meeting for all three of them, which turns bad when Brigid and Cairo fight and the police show up. Spade realizes he is being tailed by an unpleasant looking young man whose boss, Gutman, is also offering to pay Spade for the statue. Gutman explains the statue's rich history, saying that it is potentially priceless. The situation continues to get murkier and more dangerous. Who has the figure? And who can Spade trust?

Hugely influential to the detective genre, this 1930 novel was originally published in serialized form in Black Mask magazine. The Maltese Falcon is tight, well-written and full of hard-boiled excitement. Though the general mystery is expertly put together, the strength of Spade's character alone could carry the novel. He's bitter, sarcastic and appears to trust no one, giving the book a heavy dose of misanthropy that characterizes the genre. Some of the other characters establish classic tropes like Cairo and Brigid. All are interesting and colorful. The plot is quickly paced and as things rapidly unfold you never know who to trust, including Spade, till the bitter end.

If you're looking for somewhere to start with hard-boiled detective fiction, The Maltese Falcon is the best place. There's a nice Vintage paperback available, though older editions of the novel are plentiful in used bookstores. Here's a great run down of the different editions. I also highly recommend the third film adaptation, The Maltese Falcon (1941), starring Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre.

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