Thursday, August 26, 2021

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

Title: The Maltese Falcon
Author: Dashiell Hammett
Publication: Hardcover, Knopf, 2000 (originally published in 1930)
Genre: Mystery
Setting: 1920s San Francisco
Description: Sam Spade is a disreputable private eye in San Francisco, known to the police and not much liked. After he is hired by the attractive Miss Wonderley to find her sister, Spade sends his partner to track a dangerous man named Floyd Thursby, suspected of leading the sister astray. That night, the partner, Archer, is killed, as is Thursby. Spade is suspected of at least one of these murders. It turns out Miss Wonderley does not really have a sister. Her name is Brigid O’Shaughnessy and she (and numerous others) are after the Maltese Falcon, a gold statue covered with enamel to hide its value. The rest of the book involves shifting alliances, as a cohort of unreliable characters try to outsmart and betray each other in an effort to secure the statue for him or herself.

My Impressions: For the last several months, a group of former law clerks have been meeting via Zoom with “our judge” to discuss a book or short story or movie. The women lawyers as a group disliked Hemingway, both the short story we read and the vivid portrait of him in the recent Burns documentary (while admiring Burns’ talent). This month’s assignment was The Maltese Falcon, book and/or movie and we met on August 25th.

Interestingly, the Judge and several of us saw similarities between the “man’s man” so admired and emulated by Hemingway and Sam Spade, the uber hard-boiled detective who cares about no one but himself – as evidenced by his lack of interest in paying respect to his deceased partner by viewing his body and (worse) changing the signage on the office the very next day to remove Archer’s name (so cold it is amusing). Otto Penzler, the distinguished mystery editor, wrote:
You could argue that Hammett was the most influential American writer of the 20th century. This is an honor generally accorded to Ernest Hemingway, but who influenced him? There has been some question about whether Hammett influenced Hemingway or whether it was the other way around.

There is no question they knew each other's work. In Hemingway's "Death in the Afternoon," he remarks that his wife is reading Hammett's "The Dain Curse," adding that it's his "bloodiest yet" ("The Dain Curse" was Hammett's second novel). In Hammett's "The Main Death," his detective, the Continental Op, notices that a wit ness is reading "The Sun Also Rises."
Raymond Chandler points out that Hammett wrote for people who “were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there.” Perhaps, but I would add that when it comes to crime fiction there is an armchair element to keep in mind – readers may enjoy reading about violence without wanting to partake!

The Judge pointed out that Hammett changed the course of detective fiction from little old ladies in manor houses in the English countryside to gumshoes for hire in the big American city. It didn’t take much time for me to conclude that I am not ready to give up Miss Marple and Miss Silver for Sam Spade – although I was pleased to learn the origins of Sam Spade! I watched most of the movie on Tuesday night, which I had never seen. Humphrey Bogart is perfect for the part because he rarely shows emotion, other than an occasional sardonic smile. Robert Polito in his introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition I read points out that Hammett never reveals what Spade is feeling and thinking, thus creating an ambiguous world where only his self-interest provides direction.  This was interesting because, at first, I thought Hammett had influenced the creation of Harry Bosch, Michael Connelly’s hardboiled policeman but Harry has a very strong sense of morality and fights for victims no one else cares about: “Everybody counts or nobody counts.” 
The goal of a book group, besides good company and wine (the latter of which, sadly, one does not get on Zoom) is to expand one’s horizons, and I am glad to have finally read this classic. 

Source: Library. This is my twenty-second book for the Cloak and Dagger Challenge.


Lark said...

I haven't read the book or seen the movie, but I feel like it's one of those classic mysteries that I should try at least once, you know?

Katrina said...

I'm waiting for this one to arrive at the library. I read The Thin Man fairly recently and really liked it. I love Bogey in The Maltese Falcon film - but then I just love Bogey in general.

Lex @ Lexlingua said...

I only remember the Bogart movie -- if you've seen that, how does the book compare to the movie? I'm afraid I can never think of Sam Spade without thinking of Bogart. That was such a golden era of Bogart movies. :) And as for "I am not ready to give up Miss Marple and Miss Silver for Sam Spade" -- yes, absolutely.

Ruthiella said...

The Hemingway connection is fascinating and spot-on. I read this book 10 years ago because it is on the Modern Library's 100 best 20th century English language novels list. I don't remember a drop of the plot, however, so could easily re-read it. LOL. I probably should, because I gave it four stars on Goodreads, so I must have liked it? I definitely prefer Christie, however. I read and re-read her Poirot and Miss Marple mysteries regularly.

TracyK said...

I loved The Maltese Falcon when I read it, and maybe partially because I had seen the film so many times. It is a favorite. I did not consider the book that violent or brutal, although I will admit I put off reading The Maltese Falcon for years because I thought it would be too hard-boiled for me.

To me it seemed very close to the film, with the dialog seeming to be word for word.

I also read The Thin Man by Hammett, also loved that book. But I haven't read anything else by Hammett, although I may some day. I suspect some of the other books are too bloody and violent, but don't know for sure. If I had to choose between Agatha Christie's books and Hammett's I would, but I don't have to choose. I like both.