Tuesday, April 13, 2010

*The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett

first published 1930

Try as I might, I could not get the voice of Bogart out of my head while reading this, nor could I not help but see Peter Lorre or Sidney Greenstreet in my mind when their characters entered the plot. My familiarity with the movie version turned out to be a bit  problematic at times, but not to the point where I wanted to chuck it all and pick up another book.

Since the plot is so well known it needs no explanation. It's a classic noir private-eye novel, and Hammett's only novel featuring Sam Spade.  Aside from the storyline, The Maltese Falcon is interesting in terms of its characters. Spade is an enigma, playing things close to the hilt so that at times he's difficult to read. Hammett does not offer any personal insights from Spade's point of view -- there are no inner monologues and no peeks into the detective's brain to tell the reader what he's thinking at any given moment.  He has a love/hate relationship with the police and authority, and protects himself behind an attorney. Throughout the novel the reader has to decide if Spade has any sense of morality at all.  His actions at times -- sleeping with his partner's wife, demanding a share of the ill-gotten gain, throwing in with the bad guys -- all keep the reader guessing right up to the end when all is revealed. Spade is definitely a masculine kind of guy, who probably always gets exactly what he wants.

The supporting characters are well worth a mention, especially Joel Cairo and the three women.  Hammett describes Cairo as effeminate and mincing with a high voice, clutching at perfumed handkerchiefs, implying that he's a homosexual. Effie notes, referring to Cairo upon their first meeting, that "this guy is queer." Cairo makes Spade (who refers to him somewhere else as a fairy) crazy, but also provides some amusement, and he makes a great verbal whipping boy. Then there are the women. The first is the femme fatale Brigid O'Shaughnessy. This woman is one cold cookie - a liar, a schemer and one who will do anything (and I do mean anything) to get what she wants. Nothing is going to stand in her way. She's a strong character, but is not averse to bringing on the tears and the whining when it suits her purpose.  At the same time, she's woefully transparent and Spade knows it, and has no qualms about playing her own game back at her when need dictates. Then there's Iva, the not-so-grieving widow of Miles Archer, with whom Sam has a history in the sack. Expecting that Sam will take Miles' place after his death, she goes after him with a vengeance while he does his best to avoid her.  It's fairly obvious that he dislikes both women (one because she's strong, one because she's weak, both because they're ultimately "feminine") but when it comes to his secretary Effie Perrine, it's rather telling that he says to her at one point "you're a good man, sister." Hmm.

 By the time I finished the novel, the story of the Falcon itself paled in comparison to the characters. Although modern readers may find these people a little over the top and definitely stereotypes, I think you have to put them back into the context of the times. The characters, not the plot, make this book what it is --  a fine work of noir fiction. I liked it and I would definitely recommend it to people who read in that genre.


  1. "with whom Sam has a history in the sack." You just made me spit out my soda.

    Have you read any of his other works? It is easier to get Bogie out of your mind with those.

    Your struggle with this reminds me of earlier this year when I was reading Earle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason series. It was so hard not to picture Raymond Burr!

  2. Oh cool. A spew! I've had those moments. Should I have said bluntly that they'd been having sex behind Miles' back?

    Here's something really odd. Tonight I decided to rewatch African Queen (it's now out on DVD) and got so into Bogart. I then watched The Maltese Falcon and now I want to read another book that became a movie he was in. I think I have Treasure of the Sierra Madre somewhere...maybe I'll go dig it out. I guess I'm over my Bogart issue now.


Say what you will, but at least try to be nice about it.