Saturday, August 27, 2011

Re-reading "The Maltese Falcon" - It's still good

The Maltese Falcon was this month's reading selection of my local library's Mystery Book Club. I probably would not have reread it if not for that impetus. But now that I've reread this one and remembered just how good a writer Dashiell Hammett was, I feel the need to reread his other four novels as well. He, after all, was the master and inventor of the noir hard-boiled detective, an iconic character in American fiction. One who has many children.


The first thing the reader notices on reading The Maltese Falcon is Hammett's amazing use of descriptive language. His characters - particularly Sam Spade - and his scenes are described in such intricate detail, right down to the minute twitch of an eyebrow or to the wind blowing through a window to dislodge the ash on a cigarette left in an ashtray, that the reader feels she has not just read the words but has actually seen the painted picture. This is really good stuff!

I had forgotten just how good. I first read this book about a hundred years ago. I was either in college or just out of college and I bought a book that was a compilation of Hammett's five novels with a foreword by Lillian Hellman.The Novels of Dashiell Hammett it was called, and it had been published in 1965. In addition to this novel, it contained Red HarvestThe Dain Curse,The Glass Key, and The Thin Man. Each of the novels is brief with spare but eloquent language. Much of the hard-boiled street slang of the 1930s seems like a foreign language today, but it is possible to figure it out within the context of the sentences and it simply adds to the adventure of reading Hammett.

The story of The Maltese Falcon is such an iconic tale in pop culture, well-known not only because of the book but especially because of the wonderful old movie starring Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, et al. I've seen the movie several times since I read the book and I had frankly forgotten how far the physicality of the movie Sam Spade diverged from the book Sam Spade. In the book, Sam Spade is very blond and all of his facial features resolve themselves into Vs - v-shaped eyes, v-shaped mouth, etc. His eyes are yellow-gray and his expressions are described as wolfish. In the movie, Sam Spade is...Humphrey Bogart. Bogart inhabited the role so perfectly and seamlessly that he will always be Sam Spade for me. As I read the book again, although I could envision Sam as Hammett described him, the voice I heard in my head was always Bogart's.

The story begins - of course - with a beautiful woman asking Sam's help in finding her young sister who has allegedly been brought to San Francisco from New York by a nefarious character who is up to no good. Sam's partner, Miles Archer, enters the office while the woman is telling her story, and offers to handle the case personally. While Miles is tailing the alleged miscreant that night, he is shot and killed. Well, when a man's partner is killed, even if he didn't like him, he's got to do something about it, and Sam does and we get to go along for the ride. It's a wonderful ride.


In our discussion of the book at our book club meeting, I was frankly astonished at some of the opinions expressed.  For example, that the book was "dated."  Really, you think?  So are Jane Austen and Mark Twain.  Some members, who had obviously never heard of Dashiell Hammett, were disturbed by what they considered Sam Spade's immorality or amorality. The concept of the anti-hero was apparently unknown to them and the origins of the noir novel were not a part of their literary consciousness.  



Oh, well, we all bring our own experiences and backgrounds to our reading and to the formation of our opinions about the books we read.  For me, The Maltese Falcon is a wonderful book.  I would place it among the great books of the twentieth century for its use of language and the integrity and vividness with which it represents the culture of its time.  For me, it could never be "dated."

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