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The Maltese Falcon Paperback – July 17, 1989
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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
“Dashiell Hammett . . . is a master of the detective novel, yes, but also one hell of a writer.” –The Boston Globe
“The Maltese Falcon is not only probably the best detective story we have ever read, it is an exceedingly well written novel.” –The Times Literary Supplement (London)
“Hammett’s prose [is] clean and entirely unique. His characters [are] as sharply and economically defined as any in American fiction.” –The New York Times
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The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett is a character-driven story with the been-around-the-block-more-than-once detective, Sam Spade, the driving force in the search for an "ornament" of great value. Sam talks about the truth a lot, because many of the book's characters have a problem with it, but Sam has no problem using his fists to give a lesson about truth and other important concepts. Sam's wisecracks add that much more to his personality.
Hammett's characters' names add to their personalities and descriptions as with Joel Cairo who is from somewhere in the vicinity of Egypt. The dialogue is sharp, witty, and dangerous. This cast of characters is one of the most memorable that I will not soon forget.
The plot is relatively simple, but the characters are what make the novel. Spade is mentally sharp, honest in character, and ready to back up his opinion with his fists. Seemingly having ice water in his veins, Spade is ever the cool customer no matter the odds against him. His client, Brigid, is a double-dealing female willing to switch sides at will when the wind changes directions, obviously used to using her good looks and damsel-in-distress act to get her way. Joel Cairo, the stereotypical homosexual, also seems to be in the game only for himself. The wealthy fat man Casper Gutman and his henchman Wilmer represent the evil antagonists.
The plot is developed slowly. Brigid O'shaughnessy drops by Spades office to hire him to tail her supposed boy friend Floyd Thursby. Brigid is not forthcoming with her real name or the real reason for the job. Miles Archer, Sam's partner, agrees to tail Thursby. Later that evening, Spade receives a call saying that Miles had been killed. Spade becomes a suspect because of his affair with Iva Archer, Miles's wife. Iva actually thinks Sam killed Miles so they could be married. Lt. Dundy, obviously at odds with Spade, is out to bury Sam. However, Spade does have friends in the department, most notably Tom Pohaus. The more Sam tries to get information from Brigid, the more she puts him off.
Enter Joel Cairo. He tries to hire Spade to find a statue of a bird, which we discover is the Malttese falcon. Also, Sam is asked to meet with Gutman, who is also looking to get his hands on the statue. Spade finds out that the statue is a jewel encrusted gold statue of a falcon that has been painted with black enamel to disguise it's value. While the others are trying to use Spade as a pawn to get their hands on the valuable artifact, Sam uses his wits to insert himself into the mix to become a major player. The game's afoot, and only the most cunning player will emerge victorious. Two more murders later, all the main players meet in Spade's apartment to see who will come away with the statue.
The story takes place in San Francisco, which is a fairly large city. But Sam Spade shows the professionalism of his craft by knowing people wherever he goes. This is a classic from a bygone era, and one thing I noticed was that all the men wore hats. I doubt that there will ever be a novel that tops "The Maltese Falcon" in the detective genre.