on September 26, 2004
Alongside Raymond Chandler's Marlowe, Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade is one of the most famous detectives from American literature. These two writers define what we know as the noir literature. Personally speaking, I found it more pleasant to read Hammett than Chandler. Both writers are great, and deliver the best in the prose, character development, settings and all, but I found "The Maltese Falcon" more interesting than "The Big Sleep" and "Farewell, my Lovely".
Hammett's prose is straightforward. He doesn't waste time with digressions and many descriptions -- only the essential. As a consequence, his novel is packed with action and mystery. It is not a surprise that this author writes with so much authority -- he used to be a private detective. Most of the book --if not the whole narrative --feels like getting inside information.
Hammett's style became a paramount in this genre and he has a major influence on many contemporary writers -- e.g. James Ellroy, Jeffery Deaver, and the French Jean-Christophe Grange among others. Hammett's prose is filled with witty observations on the American way of life -- mostly on the violence and corruption that were permeating the American Society.
Contrary to what many contemporary readers may wrongly assume, the older mystery novel is not as prudish and conservative as it may sound. Hammett's prose is more related to the 20s than the 50s. And in that early period society was looser than after the McCarthyism. Therefore, "The Maltese Falcon" can be a grateful surprise to many readers -- who will find drink, drugs, sex and sexual orientation (the Cairo character's sexual orientation has been largely discussed since the book was published).
However we are almost all the time with Spade, the reader has no access to his thought. It is the reader's job to reach conclusions and put the pieces together. And we can learn this from dialogues, events and mostly Spade's reactions and facial expressions. But this is not a hard job for the reader -- on the contrary, this is one of the best features of Hammett's style.
Of course, the movie version of the book is very famous --and almost as good. But it is always an irreplaceable pleasure to read Hammett's words. And to meet Spade before he `had' Bogart's face.
on March 9, 2001
Why should anyone read THE MALTESE FALCON?
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.
on July 21, 2000
"The Maltese Falcon" is better known to most of the public these days from the movie -- which is as close to a perfect adaptation as any movie has ever gotten. The novel is just as wonderful, if not more. There is a certain muscular quality to Hammett's prose that is mirrored by Huston's graphics, but Hammett has to be read to see what marvelous sentences he constructed. There are a few significant differences from the movie: Sam Spade in the book is described as a "blond Satan," and the heroic quality that Humphrey Bogart projected is darker in the novel. There is a long story, told while Brigid and Sam wait, about a man named Flitcraft who disappears; the story is central to understanding Sam's view of humanity. And there is Gutman's daughter, who is cut completely from the film. There are other minor differences, but taken all in all, the movie served the book well. Fans of the movie will love the novel, and fans of the mystery and detective genre who haven't read Dashiell Hammett are missing the genesis of the hard-boiled detective. An outstanding read!
on January 8, 2001
The Maltese Falcon is the best detective novel I have ever read. I had seen the movie before I read the book and I must say that this is one of those rare cases where the book is more exciting. Usually if you see the movie first you picture those actors while you are reading, but Dashiell Hammett does such a wonderful job with his description, you can't help but develop a whole new cast in you mind. With nifty phrases like "limp freshness" or "a weary grimace" Hammett vividly portrays every scene without any clutter, making for a fast-paced and exhilarating novel. I rarely had to take the time to re-read sentences unlike many other books that leave you reading the same page three times with their wordiness and deadwood. The originality of the subcharacters is also a high point of the novel. Although Sam Spade is practically a stock character for the books and films of the time period, the other characters in the book are fascinating and undoubtadly original. Joel Cairo, the Levantine, and Wilmer, the rookie hitman, were the two characters I simply could not get enough of while I was reading The Maltese Falcon. Finally, the last reason why I consider this the best detective novel of all time is that it stands the test of time. Originally published in 1930, the book makes as much sense today as it must have seventy years ago. As I read, I pictured the story happening today proving that The Maltese Falcon is a timelss classic. I would recommend this book to any reader out there prepared to stay up into the long hours of the night because they can't get enought of The Maltese Falcon, the best detective novel ever written.
on August 29, 2013
While this book was entertaining, I found it challenging on several levels, and not necessarily in a good way. There was, of course, the immense cultural baggage that accompanies a seminal book like this -- all the decades of film and TV adaptations, the way it really established hard-boiled noir mystery fiction, as far as I know-so it was impossible to read the book and not think I was watching a black-and-white movie from the '40s starring Humphrey Bogart. After awhile, I stopped trying. But that wasn't Dashiell Hammett's fault.
What was Dashiell Hammett's "fault," if any fault is to be assigned, is that he constructed a thoroughly dislikable character in Samuel Spade. Up to the very last page, I found nothing redeeming about him. Spade's actions and words, quite consistently, showed that he valued one thing and one thing only: money. He wasn't motivated by respect for the law, nor love, nor loyalty. At the end, he did say something about feeling obligated to investigate the murder of his partner, whom he didn't like, just because he'd been his partner, but if that was the case, then it didn't really come out in the story until that point.
I guess what I'm getting at is that one of the gold standards in judging the power of any story is whether the characters have been changed by the story. It's a simple matter of character arc: was Samuel Spade a different person at the end than he was at the beginning? Because let's face it: if a character isn't changed by the story, then this must not have been a particularly significant episode of the character's life, so we as the readers have no particular reason for reading the story. And on that criterion, I have to say about Samuel Spade that I'm not sure if he changed, and probably not. In the last chapter, Brigid O'Shaughnessy challenges Spade with a question: Do you love me? "Maybe I do," he answers. "What of it?" He goes on to say that he won't "play the sap for you" and makes it clear that he's perfectly willing to sell her out to the cops because he doesn't want to go down for her crimes. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is about all the character arc that I can detect. Spade might love her, he might not, but that doesn't change who he is. He's looking out for number one. Oh, and that other woman whom he's been sleeping with, the wife of his dead partner? For God's sake, Effie, keep her out of my office. Not now.
All that being said, perhaps The Maltese Falcon was a success for the very reasons I've cited above. It certainly got me thinking. It certainly elicited an emotional reaction in me, and, to the author's credit, the emotional reaction had more to do with the story and characters than it did with how he writes. (It's not often that we encounter a novel written entirely in the third-person objective viewpoint, in which we never get inside of character's thoughts and have to figure it all out for ourselves, kind of like watching a movie or a play.) And in the final judgment, that's really the most important thing about a book: did it reach the reader in some way? Did it affect the reader on some level? Did it entertain him, piss him off, or change the reader in any way?
In answer to that, the best I can say is to parrot Spade. Maybe it did.
Although several of his novels have considerable merit, Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) will be best remembered for a single work: THE MALTESE FALCON.
Perhaps the single most extraordinary thing about the novel is its radical departure from the norm. In the 1920s and early 1930s, detective novels were not really considered "literary;" they were light entertainment, and they generally came in two varieties: pure pulp, which was more akin to action-adventure, and "the master detective" as created by such authors as Agatha Christie. In one fell swoop, however, Hammett not only fused these two ideas but also endowed his novel with tremendous literary style--more than enough to catch the eye of "serious" critics and more than enough to stand the test of time.
THE MALTESE FALCON is not a long novel, but Hammett packs a lot into it. The plot, which generally concerns the theft of a priceless, jewel-encrusted statue, walks a fine line between pulp mythology and modern pragmatism, never veering too far in either direction to seem impossible; the prose is lean and clean and packed with detail conveyed both simply and sharply; the characters stand out in a sort of high relief on the page. It is all memorable stuff.
It is difficult to discuss THE MALTESE FALCON without reference to the famous 1941 film version starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor. The film has been both a blessing and a curse, so famous that it has drawn thousands of readers to the novel, but so widely seen that it can become difficult to read the novel without seeing it through the lens of the film. But while the film presents the plot and much of Hammett's dialogue intact, readers will find the novel has somewhat different strengths--not the least of which is Hammett's prose itself. An essential of 20th Century American literature; strongly recommended.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer
Dashiell Hammett is best known as the man who wrote "Maltese Falcon," the classic noir mystery behind the classic noir film. That book is included here, along with the confusing "Red Harvest" and magnificent, polished "Thin Man," two other crime novels by Hammett.
The mysterious "Maltese Falcon" is at the center of international intrigue -- and murder. Cynical Sam Spade and his partner Miles Archer are hired by a beautiful, seemingly helpless woman to find a man who she says has run off with her sister. Not only is the woman lying, but someone kills Archer. A slimy fop, a cultured gangster, and a breathy femme fatale are all in the same web of crime and murder, centered on a bejewelled bird called the Maltese Falcon.
"Red Harvest" is the full-length novel introduction of the cool-as-ice Continental Op. He travels to Personville (or "Poisonville," depending on your accent) to meet a client. Except the client has just been murdered. Rather than go home to San Francisco, the Continental Op meets the dead man's wealthy father, and begins a one-man battle against the vicious gangsters who control Personville. But the death and mayhem draw him in, threatening his life as he struggles to stay afloat.
"The Thin Man" was Hammett's last and lightest novel. Nick and Nora Charles are a wealthy couple who have a weird kind of compatibility, but ex-private-eye Nick is through with crime solving. Or so he thinks. One day when Nick is out drinking, he encounters young Dorothy Wynant, daughter of peculiar inventor Clyde Wynant. Her dad has vanished, and soon his secretary/mistress is found dead. Nick finds himself sucked unwillingly into a sordid, messy crime that will leave more murdered bodies behind it.
This collection shows the unevenness of Hammett's writing at times. "Maltese Falcon" and "Thin Man" are complicated and polished, while "Red Harvest" is a dense mass of shootings, conspiracies and mysterious crimes. What they all have in common is tense, sparse writing, and hardened, cynical anti-heroes who are surrounded by other ambiguous characters.
The three-pack of "The Maltese Falcon," "The Thin Man," and "Red Harvest" is a good way to introduce yourself to Hammett's gritty, engrossing crime novels. Highly recommended.
Everyone knows Bogart as Sam Spade in "The Maltese Falcon." Far fewer know Hammett's book, the original story. I feel so sorry for those who haven't read the story too. It's just as good.
It's a dark story about the dark edges of a carnivorous world. Everyone and everything is for sale - friends, love, loyalty, and life. Lives, really. Spade is the private eye doing business only in cash. He just wants to make it through the day and into one more day. The babe, her name doesn't matter even to herself, has used up more men than she can count. His partner is dead, but his partner's wife wanted it that way. Cairo, Gutman, and the rest all have morals you can weigh on a jeweler's scale. And should, more than once, because they'd steal the tip off the all-night cafe's table if you didn't see the waitress stick it somewhere safe. Safe enough.
Do you think that people are the best that evolution can do? Or ar you afraid that's true? "Gut-man", the fat man, "Wonderly", the wonderful woman, too wonderful, "Spade" who digs down to the truth - it's a morality play.
I know you liked the movie. If you're a reader, you already read this far. That means you'll like the book. It starts gently, but by the end, it slaps you around like a bad date at the trailer park. No, you won't like it, but you'll be really glad it didn't happen to you.
on October 27, 1999
The best mystery novel ever! Dashiell Hammett's story "The Maltese Falcon" creates such suspense and interest for the reader, you may have to take a few days off work to finish it. You are taken on twists and turns throughout the story. Trying to figure out who's side the seductive Brigid O'Shaughnessy is on can be like guessing what came first the chicken or the egg. The main character Sam Spade is the classic private eye. A man who doesn't back down from any man, and doesn't back away from any women. The Maltese Falcon is described as such a treasure that you have no problem believing that it is indeed "A treasure worth killing for". As the story unfolds new characters reveal themselves, all interested in treasure. Alliances are formed and then broken. You never know who will betray who next. This book was rated as one of top 100 books of this century. Once I read it I was convinced it belong there. The greatest mystery novel is the Maltese Falcon. I Like to Eat Paper
on September 5, 2001
This classic mystery has escaped my reading list for years. Finally I nailed it down and started to read. Within minutes I was laughing at the sharp dialogue and shaking my head at the author's powerful abilities. As an admirer of James Lee Burke's writing, I saw similarities in characterization and dialogue. Is Burke a Dashiell Hammett fan? I don't know. Yes, Hammett's characters are written with wit, style, and depth. But his plotting surpasses Burke's lumbering, let's-see-where-the-day-leads-us style. This story begins to twist and backtrack every time you think you know where it's headed. The ultimate prize, the Maltese Falcon, has secrets of its own.
Although a bit surprised at certain vulgarities and immoral situations within the story (surprising due to the period in which it was written), I couldn't help but admire Hammett's inimitable style. This is tight and well-paced writing. This is a story that carries all the charm of an old-fashioned movie while seeming absolutely modern in its sensibilities and understanding of human nature. The ending is satisfactory, with a surprise or two, but also leaves a few issues unresolved so that the reader must fill in the gaps from the information given.
I found myself smiling. I'd been in the hands of a master storyteller. And, in keeping with Hammett's sometimes rough manner, I wondered just where did the term "Give 'em the bird" come from? Could it have come from this nifty little mystery. It would certainly fit. Read it and you'll know what I mean.