Sunday, 21 March 2010

Book Review: The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett (1930)

San Francisco private detective Sam Spade finds himself embroiled in a complex plot to steal a priceless ancient artifact known as the Maltese Falcon. This jewel-encrusted bird statue is being pursued by a most colourful assortment of thieves: the beautiful but conniving Brigid O'Shaughnessy; the relentless fatman appropriately named Gutman; the heavily perfumed and feminine Joel Cairo; and Wilmer Cook, the ruthless young assassin with a fondness for large guns.

Spade is dragged into the plot by O'Shaughnessy, whose initial approach to Spade immediately results in two dead bodies and the police crawling all over Spade to find out what they can pin on him.

The Maltese Falcon is a hugely influential book, setting the stage for Raymond Chandler's more fully baked novels featuring Philip Marlowe, and stimulating a couple of decades worth of hard boiled detective movies from Hollywood.

It is difficult to separate Dashiell Hammett's 1930 novel from the 1941 film adaptation, starring Humphrey Bogart as Spade and directed by John Huston. The movie is as close to a verbatim filming of the book as adaptations get, with the advantage of visually bringing the characters to life using a terrific cast. It is almost impossible to read the book without the mind's eye replaying the movie.

The book is characterized by a straightforward third-person narrative style that is surprisingly dry. Hammett's writing is certainly not fluid. His descriptive text is choppy and somewhat repetitive. He has an endless and somewhat irritating fascination with eyes, often describing the changing of a character's eyes several times within one exchange of dialogue. Characters regularly behave with exaggerated emotion, if not outright irrationality.

It is almost as though Hammett is writing a movie screenplay, where larger than life becomes normal as complex events are compressed into 90 minutes, rather than a novel, which requires a more relaxed pace and better delving into characters' thoughts and motivations.

But The Maltese Falcon does shine in bringing to life a clutch of memorable characters: Sam Spade as a sleazy detective just slightly less crooked than the low-lifes around him; Gutman as the bulbous fatman on a worldwide quest for treasure; Cairo as the effeminate thief out of his league among the more violent gangsters around him; and Wilmer as the young triggerman who feuds with Spade physically and psychologically throughout the book.

The one character that doesn't work neither in the book nor the movie is Brigid O'Shaughnessy, whose transparent lying and over-emotional melodrama should have gotten her killed within minutes in the world that Hammett creates for her.

For all its faults, The Maltese Falcon is a cornerstone of the modern detective story, where nothing is what it seems and characters' intentions are deliciously separated only by barely perceptible degrees of grey.

Published in paperback by Vintage.
217 pages.

The Ace Black Blog Book Review No. 35.
The Ace Black Blog Book Review Index is here.

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