A treasure worth killing for Sam Spade, a slightly shop-worn private eye with his own solitary code of ethics, a perfumed grifter named Joel Cairo, a fat man named Gutman, and Brigid O'Shaughnessy, a beautiful and treacherous woman whose loyalties shift at the drop of a dime. These are the ingredients of Dashiell Hammett's coolly glittering gem of detective fiction, a novel that has haunted three generations of readers.
The classic Bogart flick is a near-perfect redition of Dashiell Hammett's tough-guy dialogue. Director John Huston cast the film so well, that it's impossible to imagine the characters any other way. And in all its twists and turns, the movie captures every nuance of Hammett's plot, and even adds to the mix.
So, again: Why should anyone read THE MALTESE FALCON? The same reason why the movie is so watchable time after time; If you haven't read it, you don't know how good it is, and if you have read it, it's so good, you can't wait to read it again.
In THE MALTESE FALCON, Hammett nails every element of the detective genre so precisely, so superbly, that it's a wonder anyone ever tried to write another detective novel after him. There are simply none better, a detective novel that goes beyond its pulp roots, and enters the realm of 'capital L' Literature.
The plot, for those three people who are unaware, is as follows; Detective Sam Spade has unwittingly become a pawn in a bizarre game of chess. After his partner Miles is killed, he finds himself immersed in a convoluted plot involving a double-dealing moll, a sly fat man, a creepy small man, and a treasured statue of a bird that, if it exists, is worth unimaginable riches. But Spade is unwilling to be used in such a fashion, and starts to set himself up as a player in the scheme, all the while trying madly to figure out exactly what he should do.
I have always believed, in the best of the genre, that the actual plot comes second to the characters, and FALCON is no exception. Hammett's Spade is a remarkable resourceful character, living by a code that even he may not truly believe in. The characters of Gutman, Cairo, Brigid, and Wilmar are by turns despicable, evil, comical, and touching. Spade may be the driving force, but Hammett knows that Heaven is in the details; not one minor character is spared his sharp eye for character and ear for dialogue.
But Hammett does not skimp on the plot, either. He is well aware of what Alfred Hitchcock named the 'MacGuffin"; the one object that motivates the characters. It doesn't matter whether or not the reader believes in it, it is only important that the characters believe. Hammett knows this, and uses the bird to unmask the evils that men do, the depths to which people will sink for greed, Spade included. They morally descend into murder, betrayal, and a surprising amount of sex (that the movie simply could not show, considering the age it was made in).
But why is THE MALTESE FALCON so good? There are many other sterling examples out there, from Raymond Chander's FAREWELL MY LOVELY (a favorite of mine), to Walter Mosley's WHITE BUTTERFLY. But FALCON has that one elusive quality that will keep a reader coming back for more. I wish I knew what that was. I personally believe it is Hammett's understanding of the human condition, of the many contradictions that make up an individual. To use Spade as an example, Hammett has created a character who is cruel, and hard-headed, and greedy, and self-serving. Only a man who knows what a person is capable of could ever attempt to make someone like that the hero.
P.S. Incidentally, unlike the otherwise perfect casting in the movie, Spade does not resemble Humphrey Bogart in the slightest. He is a tall, hulking figure, with thinning blond hair and sharp, angular features, often described as a 'blond Satan'. But it is remarkable that, despite this, Bogart's portrayal is so note-perfect that you can't help but picture him anyway.
Where it comes from and where it goes is of no consequence. The only thing that matters is the story. And, sir, let me say, what a story it is. Absolutely archetypical in the telling, in the characterizations and the execution. Forgive my little pun there. Force of habit, you know. Yes, I dare say that by now, you know all these characters, the hard boiled cops, the grieving cheating widow, the philanderous partner; you can anticipate all the crosses and double crosses; you know who ends up clean and who ends up dead. But remember, sir, the type was perfected here.
Yes, it is not so much about goal, but the road to the goal, and what a road it was. The road does not exist anymore. It was antiquated, so it was redressed, it was modernized, it was polished to look like new and renamed repeatedly, but none of the modern versions have the charm of the original. These modern versions still have diversions on the road to tempt and charm you, but none, sir, have the power the original had. Truly a one-of-a-kind creation.
If you like your detective stories and your whiskey raw and straight up, this is the story for you. If you pride yourself on collecting originals, not cheap imitations, let us negotiate for a deal, sir, one we can both live to enjoy. If you, sir, are astute enough to know there is not an original sin in the world, only the manner the sins are committed, you will appreciate this recounting of what one bard may call the most unoriginal sin.
Good day, sir, and may you enjoy your journey as much as I did.
For me there is an outer level of “The Maltese Falcon,” a mystery story, then an inner layer of the accelerated, psychologically intensified 5 days of the Falcon, and then within that the noir love story of Sam and Brigid, and this idea of the parable just seemed to add a strange and unexpected inner layer to the Sam and Brigid story, one of precisely the old medieval 'mystery' of sin and redemption. And just as Hammett gave us Satan, he gave us plenty of medievalism too in the story of “The Maltese Falcon” and the Knights Templar (themselves accused of Satanism), and he gave us the Levant connection. I don't have this all packaged together but I think there is at least a case to be explored if not made. I have been calling him a dark knight all the while and said earlier that Sam is more than willing to fight fire with hellfire and that too makes him 'satanic' in a much reduced sense, in that unlike the traditional heroes, the white knights, he fights dirty against dirty fighters. We have seen how much people are willing to condemn him for it in comments here and elsewhere. It is though, perhaps part of a bigger picture.
The noir sublime, it is a great idea, I just don't know that it is possible. We live in the times we live in and there is little of the old aesthetic of the sublime. If we get any sublime today it tends to be from deep space, or undersea, photography or pondering quantum paradoxes. Our noir is not the old Dark Romantic, it is noir. But the power of blackness is not the old power of dread and terror from Beyond or Above, its entirely post Nietzschean and is, as I said above, human, all too human, and that means sordid. Man is the measure of all things, and it is not a very big measuring stick. Hammett, I am sure had no illusions about that, but the satanic is still with us, it is just within us and all around us. It is us.
I don't know whether there is really any vital literary character in the 21st century who can carry the banner of the dark hero, although the media is full of them, but I do think Sam Spade could and maybe did. Anyway if you do think about it and come up with something please post it.
And Sam Spade has also in some manner a certain grandeur, he is larger than life, a more powerful being than the rest of us. Marlowe, not so much. Marlowe is the eternal underdog who somehow wins, Spade the eternal top dog who is a sure bet to win. Satan was God's underdog, but never ours. After a time at a big agency, learning his trade, Spade would HAVE to have his own shop, be his own man, Marlowe could have his because of Spade creating the model. Being his own "man" is the entire essence of being Satan in literature, if not religion.
There is NO sublime in “The Maltese Falcon”, it is more anti-sublime and deliberately so. This Satan has to get up and go to work in the morning having none of the powers of Milton's Satan, since no one could believe in such sublimity in 1928. It's hardboiled. Implicitly Sam has made a moral choice, he is on the side of the law, not a criminal, and you have to believe he would be a very good criminal if he chose to be so, and he has that choice. Sam sets out to do, and does, something very noble that tends to get lost in crime fiction, and he does it on his own, not hired, or consulted. He sets out to solve a murder and bring the killers to Justice. That seems to me to be noble and heroic (since it involves considerable risk to himself). It is his will to do it.
It is impossible today to be one's own angel, but one can be one's own machine. That is the essence of the Satanic NOT being the bad guy, unless you are religious and believe the Christian version. Imagine Satan as not being the corrupted being of religion and media, but a being who insists to be his own master. I believe that is why Milton's Satan captivated the imagination of romantic poets that:
Hazlitt named Satan as “the most heroic subject that ever was chosen for a poem” ... A year later, Percy Shelley maintained that Satan is the moral superior to Milton’s tyrannical God, and why Milton sided, however unconsciously with Satan. It is the uncoupling of Satan from sin and evil, and his role as an agent of free individual will that makes Satan heroic. And THAT is possibly the widest possible sense of right and wrong there is, that and being your own master, to do what is right. Sam does what is right. And Satan is sublime because he opposes omnipotent power, Sam no.
“The Maltese Falcon” has been called a proto existential novel and he is an absurd man, because in a nihilistic universe, without right and wrong for him to be aware of, he is yet a hero and chooses not to do wrong and yet to do his own will.
The story started off strong enough. There are two murders in quick succession, a dame who seems to be a damsel in distress (we know how that will turn out), a crafty PI, and run-ins with the police. All the elements of an intriguing page-turner are there.
Then Hammett's writing starts to slowly kill the novel. His dialogue is fine – it often sizzles, especially when Spade is speaking. (And I should note that Spade is eloquent even when he doesn't speak – maybe more so.) His narrative, though, is painful. “He was wearing this. He was wearing that. He walked to the door and opened it.” It's tedious stuff.
And I've never read a novel where facial expressions are described so often. Nearly every page features someone's – usually Spade's – face changing to fit the situation, and the character's agenda. And the eyes! Eyes brighten and dim. They glimmer. They become moist. They become wide, sometimes so wide you can see a bunch of white. After a whole novel of this, I felt up to my eyeballs in a mound of these sorts of descriptions, and that mound was an eyesore.
I understand it's supposed to be psychological and all, but Hammett could've added some variation and still gotten the point across.
There are also a lot of heavy-handed scenes. Spade convincing Gutman of the need of a fall guy is one. The history of the falcon is an info-dump so poorly done it's almost satirical. (Then again, maybe it's meant to be satirical, since it certainly seems to bore Spade.) Even the final scene between Spade and Brigid is boring, since they just repeat themselves over and over (and over and over) until Spade makes it clear he's going to stick to his guns.
I give it three stars mainly because Sam Spade is such a strong character. He's the most cunning man in the room, and I read to see what he'd do – or not do – in each situation. The other characters, for the most part, serve as props for Hammett to show how intelligent and wily Spade is.
Besides Spade, there wasn't much to interest me after the first third of the book was over. I think I'll steer clear of Hammett's other “classic” novels.
Rating: 3.5* of five, because I love the movie more
The Book Description: Sam Spade, Dashiell Hammett's archetypally tough San Francisco detective, is more noir than L.A. Confidential and more vulnerable than Raymond Chandler's Marlowe. In The Maltese Falcon, the best known of Hammett's Sam Spade novels (including The Dain Curse and The Glass Key), Spade is tough enough to bluff the toughest thugs and hold off the police, risking his reputation when a beautiful woman begs for his help, while knowing that betrayal may deal him a new hand in the next moment.
Spade's partner is murdered on a stakeout; the cops blame him for the killing; a beautiful redhead with a heartbreaking story appears and disappears; grotesque villains demand a payoff he can't provide; and everyone wants a fabulously valuable gold statuette of a falcon, created as tribute for the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. Who has it? And what will it take to get it back? Spade's solution is as complicated as the motives of the seekers assembled in his hotel room, but the truth can be a cold comfort indeed.
Spade is bigger (and blonder) in the book than in the movie, and his Mephistophelean countenance is by turns seductive and volcanic. Sam knows how to fight, whom to call, how to rifle drawers and secrets without leaving a trace, and just the right way to call a woman "Angel" and convince her that she is. He is the quintessence of intelligent cool, with a wise guy's perfect pitch. If you only know the movie, read the book. If you're riveted by Chinatown or wonder where Robert B. Parker's Spenser gets his comebacks, read the master. --Barbara Schlieper
My Review: There's nothing second-best about this book, no indeed not. It's a fine, solid book, one with a lot of good story packed into some very well-chosen words.
But the film, well now, sometimes perfection comes in unexpected places. Bogart and Sydney Greenstreet! What a pair of second-raters! And how perfectly they meshed, and then add Peter Lorre, another second-rater, and the Holy Trinity couldn't have done better work with the tale being told here. It was a super retelling of the basic story.
Wisecracks that, on the page, made me smile and even giggle, came out of Bogart's mouth, and Lorre's, and even Greenstreet's, at a wonderful pace and were there and gone...just like a wisecrack should be. Not to put down the book by any means! It's a fun read, and it's a well-made novel, and it's a classic noir for a reason.
But for me, only for me, I want the film to be my memory of this story.
Sam Spade and Miles Archer, private eye's residing in San Fransisco, are hired by a woman to procure the safe return of her little sister after she has run off with another man. While Spade accepts the job, he doesn't completely buy Ms. Wonderly's story feeling that there is more to what she's telling them. What turns out to be the understatement to end all understatement's, Spade becomes entangled in a search for a rare, valuable statue that puts his life in danger and his reputation with the law on the line.
I was originally hesitant about starting this noir/hard boiled/crime fiction journey because I was under the impression that these books were going to suffer from such massive over-hype that I would feel RIDICULOUS for not liking them.
This book was just tremendous. Really, just all around greatness from start to finish. It blows my mind that there had not been many books around at the time written in this style or with characters like these. It must have had people reeling when they finished it, scrambling for more!
Like Chandler's The Big Sleep, this book is endlessly quotable. I'm such a fan of great similes and snappy, witty dialogue and this book is just stuffed to the breaking point with memorable lines.
If it hadn't been so damn entertaining, I may have taken a little bit of an issue that Spade never really seems to be in any danger. Despite the fact that these criminals have the upper hand on a few occasions, they come across as buffoons with no real plans of their own.
That being said, it's hard to really find fault in something so excellent.
On a side note, something tells me that if I slap someone and they get angry, I wouldn't be able to tell them they'll take it AND like it. It works for Spade because he's clearly so damn slick but I doubt I have the ability to pull that one off.
The novel is good without being outstanding, with original story deviation from the film being interesting in showing what could easily be portrayed on film (or allowed by the censor, although implied in the film). I would not say that the book supersedes the film, but this may be because I have seen the film a few times.
I read a beautiful Folio Society edition, which was bound in a very fitting red cover with black falcon and illustrated by David Eccles - the two page title page illustration being particularly atmospheric, although Eccles has wisely decided not to depict the characters as their film actor's faces.
Like Hammet's other works, this is a gritty crime novel with a less than perfect protagonist. Sam Spade is, to me at least, one of the most famous and most copied/satirized of the detective characters. Even before seeing the movie or reading this book, I had a good feel for who Sam Spade was (though I didn't know him by name) through various cartoons, TV shows and other movies with similar characters. I was surprised to find that this is Spade's only complete novel though he was apparently in a couple other short stories.
The mystery of the book starts out fairly straightforward…Spade is hired to tail a man. That simple presence quickly takes turn after turn and pulls in numerous other shady characters and plots finally resulting in a global conspiracy of sorts.
I loved the simple, gritty and straightforward language of the book. It helped set and maintain the tone throughout the novel. I loved Spade's hard and cynical view on life as well as his approach to investigating and solving this mystery. I also found it interesting that the book never let us get into Spade's head (or anyone else's head for that matter). As far as i could tell, we never had a "Spade thought this" moment. Thus we were left having to try and deduce everyone's inner motivations and thoughts based on their actions and interactions. This made for a lot of fun and helped keep the resolution to the mystery at arm's length while at the same time seemingly presenting us with all of the information we might need to solve the mystery.
The only problem I had with the book was that I didn't want it to end. Don't take that wrong…I was fully satisfied with the ending (which gave even more of an edge to Sam Spade). I just wanted more of the same. I'll definitely have to seek out the other Sam Spade stories and keep reading Hammett. Maltese Falcon is one of those classics that I'm glad I finally read. I'll have to go watch the movie now to see how true it is to the book and the tone/feel of the story. Even if you're not a fan of mysteries or detective stories…give this one a try. I'd be interested to hear what you think.
5 out of 5 stars
What a review can do is reinforce what readers and reviewers have been saying for years, that this is about as well-written as a detective/mystery novel can be. Quick descriptions, terse dialogue, noir at its most succinct – the novel moves with a speed that drags the reader along (willingly, I might add.) And the characters are so finely drawn that it becomes quickly evident why certain individuals were chosen to play them in the movie. (Honestly, it makes you wonder which was written first – yes, I know the answer.)
If you, like me, are only now delving into this kind of writing (came a little to this in my life, but better late than never), there is no better place to start.
The main women in the story, Ruth Wonderly, Effie Perine, and Iva Archer, are all drawn to Spade's tough personality, but each in her own way. They are clearly from decades past, but they are fully developed, interesting characters. The same is true of the men, although I thought Kasper Gutman (the fat man) was a little weaker than the others. There were some implausible aspects to the plot, but everything came together in the end.
I listened to the audio while on a trip with my wife and daughter. The book was narrated by William Dufris and I was impressed by his reading. He was influenced by the film and did a wonderful Peter Lorre imitation while keeping true to all the other characters as well. It's a great book to listen to while driving.
Steve Lindahl – author of Hopatcong Vision Quest, White Horse Regressions, and Motherless Soul
I hope that this year I can find at least one new classic that I can enjoy.
My only complaint is that since it was published in 1930 it presents a backwards view of women, as well as brief moments homophobia and racism. Every time Spade patronized his secretary or other women in the novel by talking down to them, patting them on the head, whispering in their ear, or in other ways performed acts of touching that would have been inappropriate today, I couldn't help but cringe. The sexism is just so present and accepted. While I understand that this is a result of the era in which it was written, that doesn't mean it shouldn't be talked about or pointed out.
Despite this, The Maltese Falcon is full of twists and turns and action and suspense, and is absolutely a quick and fun read.
Detective Sam Spade is in his office when the pretty Miss Wonderly comes marching in with a problem that needs solving. Spade's partner ends up dead and he becomes mixed up with criminals on the hunt for the mysterious falcon.
This is the novel that was responsible for launching the era of the hard-boiled detective, whose eye for detail helps him solve crimes and have his way with the ladies. I can see why others took the idea and ran with it -- this novel is really great.
Sam also has a way with the ladies, and sometimes that complicates his situation. In this case, a young woman comes into his office needing help to rescue her younger sister from an older man who has apparently persuaded the girl to run away with him to San Francisco. Sam and his partner take on the case and agree to tale the older man in the expectation that he will lead them to the younger sister.
But before the night is over, there is not one murder but two, and the police suspect Sam of murder or withholding information, or possibly both. Dashiell Hammett has created a great character in Sam Spade. He is admired by several cops, and even some of the criminals, not to mention the ladies. He may not have the standard ethics code down pat, but he is true to his own set of standards, and he deftly rolls one cigarette after another, chain smoking throughout the book without ever saying, "May I?" Hey, it was 1929, and Sam is the essence of Cool...
This is a great read, and worth reading a second time if it's been awhile!