The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Sam Spade's partner is murdered and Sam is determined to find his killer. But what does Miles Archer's murder have to do with the client he was working for or the mysterious Maltese Falcon?
What can I say about one of the Big Two pulp detective novels, the other being The Big Sleep? Well, let's see...
The Maltese Falcon embodies a lot of what made pulp detective fiction great, leading to hordes of imitators. You've got the wise-cracking detective who has a way with the ladies, gunplay, deceit, sex, and murder. Throw in an elusive macguffin and you have a blueprint a lot of writers have been following for over three quarters of a century.
Sam Spade, that blonde Satan, is the father of many detectives that came him. In fact, it would be interesting to see whether he or Raymond Chandler has more bastard detective descendents. The plot the Maltese Falcon is fairly simple. Somebody has the Maltese Falcon and everyone seems to think Sam Spade knows where it is. Miles Archer's murder complicates things a bit but really isn't much more than a bump in the road until his killer is revealed.
The bad guys and supporting cast are an interesting bunch. Brigid O'Shaughnessy lays the groundwork for a lot of femme fatales to come. Gutman, Cairo, and Wilmer are more than just stock characters. The cops were a little light on personality but they were mostly in the story to hassle Spade so that's not such of a big deal.
Hammett's prose drives the plot along but lacks the poetry of Raymond Chandler's. Seventeen years after I read The Maltese Falcon for the first time, I have more of an appreciation for Hammett's spare style. The plot keeps moving forward without a single misstep. It's only 200-ish pages but by the end, it feels like the perfect length for such a tale.
Any complaints? Not as such. Modern readers will probably not like the book's treatment of women but it was written in the late 1920's so it has to be given a bit of slack. Honestly, my only complaints are that there aren't any more Sam Spade books and that Dashielle Hammett wasn't Raymond Chandler.
For a parting thought, this line of dialogue nicely sums up Sam Spade's character:
"When a man's partner is killed he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him."
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