I don’t know why it has taken me so long to get around to reading The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. It’s a title I’ve known for as long as I can remember and the physical book has actually been sitting on my shelf for years, but it’s not a book that screams for attention or begs and pleads to be read. It sits there and stares at you, it couldn’t care less if you read it or not. It’s good, it doesn’t need you to validate it, or publicize it, it doesn’t care about you. But once you pick it up, it hooks you, with it’s grittiness and meanness and attitude. It’s the bad guy you always end up falling for, who’s going to break your heart or get you killed.
The Maltese Falcon is a classic of crime fiction for several reasons. Sam Spade is the hard-boiled, detective, a blonde satan with a chip on his shoulder. He’s detached and determined to achieve justice, or at least his version of it. His morals are gray, but we still root for him. Into his office walks Brigid O’Shaughnessy, AKA Miss Wonderly, the femme fatale, mysterious, seductive, who leads Spade and his partner straight into a deadly game. She hires Spade and Archer to follow a hood named Thursby by giving them some obviously fictional story. That night Archer ends up at the bottom of a muddy gully, shot to death. A few hours later Thursby ends up dead. Soon Spade is being pressed from all sides by buxom broads with more secrets than the CIA, a shady Turk who believes that Spade is in possession of a rare antiquity, the Maltese Falcon, and various and sundry hoods and hooligans. Can he solve the mystery before being arrested for his partner’s murder?
The characters are not likeable, and there aren’t any good guys. It’s about the dark, seamy side of the city. Each of the individuals has his or her own angles and agendas, including Spade. I have to say that he does not like women though. Granted it was written in the 20s, but still he can be downright degrading to the female cast. I think he needs to maintain power and control over them. He knows women can be dangerous, can burn you if you get to close. And no, he doesn’t call them all dame and sweetheart and talk about their gams. But yes, he does sleep with whoever he wants with no regard to anyone else’s feelings.
The Maltese Falcon totally live up to my expectations. Well done plot, smart dialuge. It’s interesting in that we’re told what people do and say but never what they think, which fits in well with the feeling of the story. We don’ know what people are thinking, only what they let us know.
I don’t think I woul necessarily recommend this as an intro to the hard-boiled detective genre, even though it is one of the early examples simply because it is so true to the style, it doesn’t give you much of a break from the violence, sex, back-stabbing. Or maybe I should recommend it for that same reason, Spade is the hard-boiled detective, no ifs or ands, and no apologies.
Finally, a few quotes from the book, because it is very quotable.
“I couldn’t be fonder of you if you were my own son. But, well, if you lose a son, its possible to get another. There’s only one Maltese Falcon. ”
“We begin well, sir,” the fat man purred … “I distrust a man that says when. If he’s got to be careful not to drink too much it’s because he’s not to be trusted when he does. … Well, sir, here’s to plain speaking and clear understanding. … You’re a close-mouthed man?” Spade shook his head. “I like to talk.” “Better and better!” the fat man exclaimed. “I distrust a close-mouthed man. He generally picks the wrong time to talk and says the wrong things. Talking’s something you can’t do judiciously unless you keep in practice.”
“If you kill me, how are you going to get the bird? If I know you can’t afford to kill me till you have it, how are you going to scare me into giving it to you?” Gutman cocked his head to the left and considered these questions. His eyes twinkled between puckered lids. Presently he gave his genial answer: “Well, sir, there are other means of persuasion besides killing and threatening to kill.”
“Sure,” Spade agreed, “but they’re not much good unless the threat of death is behind them to hold the victim down. See what I mean? If you try anything I don’t like I won’t stand for it. I’ll make it a matter of your having to call it off or kill me, knowing you can’t afford to kill me.”
“I see what you mean.” Gutman chuckled. “That is an attitude, sir, that calls for the most delicate judgment on both sides, because, as you know, sir, men are likely to forget in the heat of action where their best interest lies, and let their emotions carry them away.”
Spade too was all smiling blandness. “That’s the trick, from my side,” he said, “to make my play strong enough that it ties you up, but yet not make you mad enough to bump me off against your better judgment.”
Gutman said fondly: “By Gad, sir, you are a character!”
I do think this is a must-read for those of us who are PI fans.
4 out of 5 stars
Category: Mystery & Detective – Hard-boiled
First published 1930
Book source: Personal library