Goodreads: The Maltese Falcon
A treasure worth killing for. Sam Spade, a slightly shopworn private eye with his own solitary code of ethics. A perfumed grafter named Joel Cairo, a fat man name Gutman, and Brigid O’Shaughnessy, a beautiful and treacherous woman whose loyalties shift at the drop of a dime. These are the ingredients of Dashiell Hammett’s coolly glittering gem of detective fiction, a novel that has haunted three generations of readers.
The Maltese Falcon is known for introducing readers to Sam Spade, the epitome of the hardboiled detective. But the book is a classic for many other reasons, ranging from the engaging mystery to the vividly defined characters to the sharp prose. I don’t generally read detective novels, but this one kept me turning page after page.
Admittedly, Sam Spade is kind of a jerk. He plays by his own rules, never minces words, and routinely plays around with women. (Seriously, he’s always cozying up with his secretary and with clients and apparently previously made some passes at his business partner’s wife.) This did not deter me from enjoying the book. I think, like the police who constantly hound Spade to fill them in on what he knows, the reader can acknowledge that he is obnoxious while still respecting that he’s very good at his job, and while still being invested in his story. He’s infuriating but extremely competent.
The plot kept me on my toes, as Spade meets a various of characters who tell him a variety of stories, and it’s on the reader to figure out how they’re all connected and who is telling him the truth. There’s a fair bit of action and danger, as well, and it’s clear that being a private investigator can be extremely demanding. It’s mostly about brains, but brawn doesn’t hurt. (Though people also pull a lot of guns in the novel.) I also enjoyed that, at least once, the book casually mentions that Spade takes on a smaller, more routine case while all of this is going on, so it’s not as if the world has just stopped for the one case.
All this is told in engaging prose. My copy of the book quotes a New York Times review that states: “Hammett’s prose [is] clean and entirely unique. His characters [are] as sharply and economically defined as any in American fiction.” I agree with this statement in general. However, Hammett does has a penchant for describing in-depth what people look like and what they are wearing. The first paragraph of the book is just a detailed description of Spade’s face. I get it in the sense that detectives should notice details, so maybe the book should mention details–even ones that are not directly related to solving the mystery–but I found some of the description tedious and do not think that “economical” is always the right term.
What I love most about the book, however, is that Hammett just straight narrates the action. He describes what Spade says and does, but rarely what he thinks; there’s no pontificating or narrator’s explanation for the reader. Rather, the reader has to interpret the text. Why is Spade doing what he’s doing? How will it help him solve the case? Is what he said to another character true or a lie? What are his motivations? Maybe it’s because I read a lot of YA, but I found this utterly refreshing. YA books are almost overwhelmingly written in first person, present tense, so the reader has a continuous run-down of the character’s thoughts and motivations. Everything is explained, and there’s little to guess at. I liked being left to my own devices while reading The Maltese Falcon.