The Maltese Falcon (Dashiell Hammett)


The Maltese Falcon is one of the two most famous hard-boiled crime stories. Most of its elements are iconic, thanks to the 1941 film: the cynical, wise-cracking private eye Sam Spade, the femme fatale, creepy Peter Lorre, the fabulous bird statuette, and the seedy moral ambivalence. The UK Crime Writers’ Association placed the novel in the top 10 Crime Novels, and the Mystery Writers of America among the top three.

But how flat, how cold, how downright boring Hammett’s book is. Thrill as Sam Spade rolls a cigarette! Tremble as Spade makes sandwiches! Excitement as Spade gets dressed! Suspense as Hammett describes every item of gent’s apparel!

Then there are the stereotypes. There are three women: the bad girl; the unfaithful wife; and the secretary. (Not until The Thin Man does Hammett make a normal, likeable woman a main character.) The villains are a fat man and two homosexuals (one a foreigner – a ‘Levantine’). Virile, all-American guy Sam Spade calls him a ‘fairy’ and a ‘lily-of-the-valley’. But Spade is a piece of work himself.

Spade – part Satan, part wolf, part giant pink hairless child – is the archetypal private eye. He is, Hammett said,

a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been and in their cockier moments thought they approached. For your private detective does not—or did not ten years ago when he was my colleague—want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander or client.

Introduction to THE MALTESE FALCON (1934 edition)

And I don’t like Spade one jot. (But he’s Bogie, you say! If you mean he’s something you picked out of your nose, then yeah, he’s a bogie.) He is toxic masculinity personified.

Frankly, Spade is an utter shit. He doesn’t like his partner, he’s going to fire him, but he’s happy to sleep with his wife. He mistreats his poor secretary, grabbing her by the shoulders and “bawling into her frightened face”. He has violent outbursts:

Red rage came suddenly into his face and he began to talk in a harsh guttural voice. Holding his maddened face in his hands, glaring at the floor, he cursed Dundy for five minutes without break, cursed him obscenely, blasphemously, repetitiously, in a harsh guttural voice.

‘Brigid’

He turned and with angry heedlessness tossed his glass at the table. The glass struck the wood, burst apart, and splashed its contents and glittering fragments over table and floor. Spade, deaf and blind to the crash, wheeled to confront the fat man again.

‘The Fat Man’

He beats up the effeminate foreigner Joel Cairo in almost every other chapter (“When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it…”), with the sadistic relish of a Nazi goon (“Spade laughed, grunted, ‘Jesus, you’re a pip!’ and cuffed the side of Cairo’s face with an open hand, knocking him over against the table…”). He threatens the gay boy:

“Keep that gunsel away from me while you’re making up your mind. I’ll kill him. I don’t like him. He makes me nervous. I’ll kill him the first time he gets in my way. I won’t give him an even break. I won’t give him a chance. I’ll kill him.”

‘The Fat Man’

He wants a fall-guy for the murders; he’s open to framing Wilmer or Cairo or Brigid, to pinning the evidence on them and turning them over to the cops, so long as the cops leave him alone. He threatens to make a woman he’s slept with strip in front of other men. He hands over the killer at the end to save himself from the gallows. This, ladies and gentlemen, is not a detective, this is a bully and a sociopath.

H. Douglas Thomson wrote: Sam Spade … is an honest-to-goodness, 100 per cent. American detective. There does not appear to be much more than this to commend him. Mr. Hammett is himself an ex-Pinkerton man.

And let’s come clean. I had had enough of this bloody book by page 80. I skim-read the second half. (This was the second time I read it, and I have seen the film a few times over the last 25 years.)

Misogynistic, racist, homophobic, and boring. Is this the stuff dreams are made of? Hardly. We give this the bird.


Blurb

Sam Spade is a knock-out detective and yet, personally, he cares not a hoot for the law; so little so that constantly is he just on the verge of being pulled by the ’Frisco cops. When Spade goes out after anything neither lead slugs, women, nor the Old Nick himself can stop him from landing it. Here he sets himself to outwit three contending factions who all want the same thing which he also wants and it is only natural, therefore, that many murders strew his winding wake, that several persons suddenly fall doped and a great liner burns mysteriously to the water’s edge.

Joseph Shaw, Editor of Black Mask and an authority on mystery fiction, says: “We want to go on record as saying that this story is a marvellous piece of writing – the finest detective story it has ever been our privilege to read in book form, in any magazine of any kind, or in manuscript. Don’t miss it.”


Contemporary reviews

Alexander Woollcott: The best detective story America has yet produced.

Joseph Shaw, editor of Black Mask: The finest detective story it has ever been our privilege to read.

Ted Shane, Judge: He stands alone as ace shocker. Hereafter even S.S. Van Dine must lower his monocle, cough up the encyclopedia and eat some humble pie. … It is everything you want. The writing is better than Hemingway, since it conceals not softness but hardness. It is the ‘Broadway’ of mysteries.

Truth: The ablest and most exciting detective story that has appeared for some years.

Will Cuppy: It would not surprise us one whit if Mr. Hammett should turn out to be the Great American Mystery writer.

Walter R. Brooks, in The Outlook: First and foremost among the new thrillers comes Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. … This is not only probably the best detective story we have ever read, it is an exceedingly well written novel.

Carl Van Vechten: It seems to me he is raising the detective story to that plane to which Alexandre Dumas raised the historical novel.

The Cleveland Press: I can think of no one in the world who is his match. … I find it hard to figure out a way to tell you how good a book The Maltese Falcon is.

Town and Country: For the first time in my knowledge, the American policeman and police detective have been adequately represented in fiction. … If you were to consider and amalgamation of Mr. Hemingway, the Mr. Burnett who wrote Little Caesar and Iron Man, that other disciple of Hemingway, Morley Callaghan, and Ring Lardner in his prize-fighting aspect, you would have a fair idea of the style and technique of Mr. Hammett.

6 thoughts on “The Maltese Falcon (Dashiell Hammett)

  1. OI was about a third of the way through this novel when I reliased — as you say above — that you’re only ever told what Spade is doing, never what he’s thinking. I seem to remember that at one point you’re even kept in the dark about what he’s doing, so that more of a surprise can be sprung upon you.

    It’s a narrative choice that honestly fascinates me to this day, the protagonist with no interior life at all, just a series of often plain actions that give next to nothing away about his intentions, his understanding, or his intelligence (rolling a cigarette, sitting on the edge of a bed, etc). As a result, I never quite understood why this was supposed to be a masterpiece — the plot can be whatever Hammett needs it to be come the end, and the unpleasant attitudes along the way seem doubly so because you’re never sure to what extent Spade is playing the role of the tough PI (c.f. the final line) or how much of him actually enjoys the brutality he metes out.

    The upshot of all this? Your recent review of Red Harvest has prompted me to reread it ASAP, but this one I’m happy to let lie.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. JJ is right: you are never told what *anyone* is thinking, not even with an adverb. That’s entirely deliberate. Hammett is doing something new.

    Of course this is one of the great masterpieces of crime fiction.

    Like

  3. If you cannot infer character from speech and behaviour…

    There is no omniscient narrator in life. We always infer character only from speech and behaviour— except from narrators. Your argument is that “movies cannot work”.

    Like

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