The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
To broaden our reading and ensure that don’t keep choosing yet another xxx-prize short/longlisted book each month, we are picking the books we read by topic, and for July it was ‘Noir’.
We pick the topic 3 months ahead, then 2 months ahead we pick the book from the titles suggested, max one each. Unless one title leaps out at us, we then make a draw. The title picked out for our ‘noir’ selection was one of the daddies of the genre – Dashiell Hamett’s The Maltese Falcon.
This was a re-read for me, but although I could remember the plot roughly, I couldn’t recall Hammett’s style or the detail, so I was more than happy to revisit this classic, first published in 1930, especially reading it from a Folio Society edition, with a great introduction by Sara Paretsky and illustrations by David Eccles in graphic novel style.
It starts by introducing us to Sam Spade:
Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases about a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down – from high flat temples – in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.
First shock. He’s NOT Humphrey Bogart at all!
A potential client arrives – a Miss Wonderly, who wants them to tail a man Thursby for her to find out where her sister is who had run away with him. Spade’s partner Archer agrees to do the tailing.
Sam Spade is no angel either. He doesn’t really get on with his partner in the detective agency – in fact he’s screwing Archer’s wife, Iva. When Archer is murdered on Thursby’s tail, Miss Wonderly’s story is obviously false, and Spade knows the police will put him in the frame for the murder if they know about Iva and him, and Iva will also expect things of him. Effie, their secretary asks:
‘Are you going to marry Iva?’ she asked, looking down at his pale brown hair.
‘Don’t be silly,’ he muttered. The unlighted cigarette bobbed up and down with the movement of his lips.
‘She doesn’t think it’s silly. Why should she – the way you’ve played around with her?’
He sighed and said: ‘I wish to Christ I’d never seen her.’
‘Maybe you do now.’ A trace of spitefulness came into the girl’s voice. ‘But there was a time.’
Sam puts all thoughts of the grieving widow out of his mind and sets out to track down Miss Wonderly. He catches up with her at her hotel:
‘That – that story I told you yesterday was all – a story,’ she stammered, and looked up at him now with miserable frightened eyes.
‘Oh, that,’ Spade said lightly. ‘We didn’t exactly believe your story.’
‘Then-?’ Perplexity was added to the misery and fright in her eyes.
‘We believed your two hundred dollars.’
She tells him another story and confesses:
She went down on her knees at his knees. She held her face up to him. Her face was wan, taut and fearful over tight-clasped hands.
‘I haven’t lived a good life,’ she cried. ‘I’ve been bad – worse than you could know – but I’m not all bad. Look at me, Mr. Spade. You know I’m not all bad, don’t you? You can see that, can’t you? Then can’t you trust me a little?…’
Spade falls for it and agrees to help her find the missing object – the Maltese Falcon – that is her real objective. Of course, other people are looking for it too. Joel Cairo and Mr Gutman are soon in the picture. I’m not going to expound any further on the plot, it gets very complicated and Spade decides to play them all against each other…
On the page, Sam Spade is not a likeable character at all, (and we felt he deserved his fate – look up the very last line – it’s a classic). None of our group warmed to him at all, contrasting with Bogie’s portrayal in the 1941 film where he’s more sympathetic. We did like Mr Gutman, a formal villain of character, but the only ‘nice’ person in the whole book is Effie, Spade’s secretary, who is brighter than she looks.
I was surprised to find that the location of San Francisco plays very little part in the book. Most of the action, save some scenes at the port takes place inside. Hammett had been a detective for Pinkertons for seven years previously and based The Maltese Falcon on his own experiences – indeed Spade’s forename ‘Samuel’ is Hammett’s own.
Hammett’s style is florid, he always tells us how everyone looks with loads of descriptive text full of adjectives; we found his obsession with the ‘v’ shapes in Spade’s face a bit repetitive. This was the first noir novel that some of our group had read, and not everyone was very enthusiastic about reading more. I urged them to try Raymond Chandler or James M. Cain as superior prose stylists before giving up on classic noir.
That said, The Maltese Falcon set the bar for all the great noir novels to follow, defining the main character types of the hard-boiled detective novel that will crop up again and again. I too prefer Chandler et al, but I do now want to re-read the rest of Hammett’s novels. He only wrote five (I have them all), plus a host of short stories (which I’ve not read). (8/10)
Next month, our topic is ‘Food‘ – and we’re reading John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk.
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Source; Own Copy