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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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Top Customer Reviews
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.
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.
The plot to this mystery is brilliantly crafted with none of the Agatha Christie tricks of last minute missing clues. Hammett's skill at writing dialouge to define character is unparralled. His ability to side step the long winded back story and to par a paragraph down to an entertaining but gripping bit of necessity is similr to that of Shirley Jackson.
Until the last pages we're never certain who's a good guy and who's bad. Even Spade is a mystery to us until the end. This book is a classic for a good reason. As great as the film is, the book is even better. It's easy to have Bogart and Mary Astor in our mind as we read it; that doesn't matter.
This particular publication fits in the back pocket which is ideal for those who like to have a book with them all the time. It's not only the book that set the standard for this genre it is-rightly so- but as a stand alone novel, few compare.
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