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Maltese Falcon Hardcover – December 12, 2000
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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"
About the Author
Dashiell Samuel Hammett was born in St. Mary s County, MD. He grew up in Philadelphia and Baltimore. Hammett left school at the age of fourteen and held several kinds of jobs thereafter messenger boy, newsboy, clerk, operator, and stevedore, finally becoming an operative for Pinkerton s Detective Agency. Sleuthing suited young Hammett, but World War I intervened, interrupting his work and injuring his health. When Sergeant Hammett was discharged from the last of several hospitals, he resumed detective work. He soon turned to writing, and in the late 1920s Hammett became the unquestioned master of detective-story fiction in America. In The Maltese Falcon (1930) he first introduced his famous private eye, Sam Spade. The Thin Man (1932) offered another immortal sleuth, Nick Charles. Red Harvest (1929), The Dain Curse (1929), and The Glass Key (1931) are among his most successful novels. During World War II, Hammett again served as sergeant in the Army, this time for more than two years, most of which he spent in the Aleutians. Hammett s later life was marked in part by ill health, alcoholism, a period of imprisonment related to his alleged membership in the Communist Party, and by his long-time companion, the author Lillian Hellman, with whom he had a very volatile relationship. His attempt at autobiographical fiction survives in the story Tulip, which is contained in the posthumous collection The Big Knockover (1966, edited by Lillian Hellman). Another volume of his stories, The Continental Op (1974, edited by Stephen Marcus), introduced the final Hammett character: the Op, a nameless detective (or operative ) who displays little of his personality, making him a classic tough guy in the hard-boiled mold a bit like Hammett himself.
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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.