Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1930)

I've read a couple Dashiell Hammett books, and a really great collection of his short stories and novellas, and I always kind of thought that I'd already read Hammett's most famous book, The Maltese Falcon (1930). I mean, I owned it. It was right there on the shelf. And I remembered the story really well. When I suggested it as the next read for my book club (go DAFFODILS!), I thought I'd enjoy reading it again. And then once I started it, I realized I'd never read it before and that I was just remembering the extremely memorable 1941 film version. Finding an unread Hammett novel is always a nice surprise, so I wasn't disappointed with my memory at all...

The Maltese Falcon gives us the iconic Sam Spade, who laid the foundation for Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe and countless other fictional private investigators and detectives in books and on the screen. Spade is tough, smart, and has an instinct about people and situations that saves his neck over and over again. He is also rather irresistible to the ladies. When a mysterious and beautiful woman, Brigid O'Shaughnessy comes into his office with a suspicious sounding job, Spade's partner jumps on the chance to help her out. But then he ends up dead and Spade ends up being pulled into the orbit of O'Shaughnessy, the strange Joe Cairo (who is impossible to picture as anyone but Peter Lorre), and the wealthy and devious Mr. Gutman. All our characters are desperate to get their hands on an antique statue of a falcon from the isle of Malta -- each of them in it for themselves, and none of them with any regrets for the people who die along the way.

Hammett has an amazing sense of the bodies of his characters and how they move. His detailed descriptions of faces, skin, and the changing light in Spade's eyes, in combination with step-by-step descriptions of characters walking across the room, rolling a cigarette, or throwing a punch make this a book that you watch almost more than you read. This level of detail makes the book a little hard to get into at first (honestly a little harder for me than some of his other books), but the payoff in terms of the characters and the plot is completely worth it.

I'll save the rest for book club, but if you are interested in crime fiction, you really should read a bunch of Hammett, and The Maltese Falcon should be at the top of your list.

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