The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

the maltese falconLights, camera, action…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When luscious Miss Wonderly hires the detective firm of Spade and Archer to find her sister, who has run off with a man named Floyd Thursby, Sam Spade might not believe her story but he’s happy to accept the $200 dollars she pays them upfront. So is Miles Archer, though his interest is more in the lady’s lovely legs. The job turns out to be more than either partner bargains for though, when both Miles and then Floyd are shot dead. With Miss Wonderly begging for his help to protect her and find the Maltese Falcon of the title, Miles’ wife hoping his death means she and Sam can finally be together, and the police accusing him of murdering Floyd in revenge for Miles’ death, Spade is in trouble up to his neck. But nothing he can’t handle…

the maltese falcon 1

Did Dashiell Hammett invent noir? I don’t know, but Sam Spade is the earliest iconic noir detective, and the one that has spawned a zillion clones down the years. The book reads like a film, making it understandable why the film of the book works so well. Heavy on dialogue, the camera stays focused on Sam Spade at all times and yet we are never allowed inside his head. As he twists and lies and manoeuvres his way through the plot, the reader has no more idea than anyone else what his true intentions might be. Has he fallen for Miss Wonderly, aka Brigid O’Shaughnessy, or is he using her? Will he double-cross her and take the money offered by the mismatched baddies Casper Gutman and Joel Cairo? Or will he trick them all, and take the fabled golden bird for himself? It’s only as the end plays out that we discover whether Spade does have some kind of moral code hidden beneath his smooth chain-smoking exterior.

“When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all around – bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere.”

Dashiell Hammett
Dashiell Hammett

It’s a while since I watched the film, but it seems to me that the script stuck very closely to the book, and the casting was pretty much perfect. As a result, I could see the movie characters in my head while reading. It’s not just the dialogue that makes the book feel so filmic. Hammett describes every movement that Spade makes in minute detail, from the fight scenes to the rolling of his endless cigarettes, and it gave me the impression of an obsessive director’s notes on how he wanted his actors to play each scene. It also feels like a studio film – there’s very little description of the world outside and the San Francisco setting could really have been any city in America. It’s rare to have quite so little sense of place in a novel, and yet it works. Like a classy film-star, Spade is so compelling that the reader doesn’t need to have the background filled out, and the great supporting cast of eccentric characters provides all the necessary contrast to highlight Spade’s starring role.

Bogart_Mary_Astor_The_Maltese_Falcon_1941

I’ve seen lots of reviews comparing this book adversely to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. My preference is for this one. I found The Big Sleep messy plotwise, and the atmospheric writing didn’t fully compensate for that. The plot of this one is tight and controlled, with each twist revealed at the perfect moment, and while the language may not be poetic, it sets a distinctive tone. The device of keeping the reader outside the thoughts of the characters works very effectively – ultimately the real mystery is nothing to do with the falcon, or even who killed Miles. It’s about what will Spade do – who is he? He’s neither likeable nor particularly admirable, but the enigma that surrounds his moral code makes him intriguing and fascinating. The book is, of course, horribly misogynistic and homophobic, but it was written nearly a century ago (1929) so I graciously forgive it, especially since Hammett manages to tell his gritty, twisted, violent tale without the need for any offensive language.

Gutman smiled benignly at him and said: “Well, Wilmer, I’m sorry indeed to lose you, and I want you to know that I couldn’t be any fonder of you if you were my own son; but – well, by Gad! – if you lose a son it’s possible to get another – and there’s only one Maltese Falcon.”

Orion have reissued this as part of a series they call ‘Read a Great Movie’ and I have to say that this, for me, was a perfect example of doing just that. I’ll be checking to see what else is in the series…

poster-maltese-falcon-the-1941_02

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion Publishing Group.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

47 thoughts on “The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

  1. Oh, this is a classic noir novel, FictionFan! I hadn’t thought about the suitability of this particular story for film, but of course you’re absolutely right. And, cranky purist that I am, I do prefer films that stay really true to the story. I honestly think this is one of those books that formed the foundations of modern crime fiction.

    • I don’t know why I’ve never read it before – maybe just because I know the film so well, but I was pleasantly surprised at how closely the film had stuck to the book. In this case it must have been easy though, because it almost reads like a screenplay, just filled out a bit. And I can’t think of any other adaptation where the casting seems so perfect – but I wonder if that’s because I saw the film first…

  2. Brilliant! I loved the film and it is great to hear that the book is just as good. And I just LOVE those 1920s detective stories, that era always seems rather magical to me. They had better detectives back then, I am certain of it. Really enjoyed this review, thanks FF!

    • Thanks, Lucy! Yes, on the whole I prefer the classics too though I get so caught up in reading new releases I don’t read as many of them as I probably should. I absolutely love the old b&w films – Cagney, Bogey, Edward G… aah, I feel a filmfest coming on for this weekend…

      • There are just too many excellent books, dadblamit! New and old. How are we mere mortals supposed to keep up? A filmfest weekend sounds pretty marvellous to me – don’t forget the wine and cake!

        • I know – apparently there were 184,000 books published in the UK alone last year. My poor TBR!! Who am I kidding – I don’t have time to watch films… *rapidly turns another page*

  3. Interesting comparison between Chandler and Hammet. In their conversation at Quais du Polar this past weekend, Ian Rankin said he instantly liked Chandler (his beautiful paragraphs), while Hammet didn’t quite click with him. Meanwhile, Val McDermid said she preferred Hammet because his women were more real, not just ciphers/blonde bombshells.

    • That’s very interesting, Marina Sofia – even as I wrote that the book was misogynistic I started wondering if it really is, or is it just Spade who’s misogynistic? I suspect Hammett’s portrayal of his women deliberately highlighted Spade’s screwed-up attitude to them, suggesting that he himself might have been fairly forward-looking for his era… one to mull over a bit, I think…

  4. Aha, so it was good, then! I think my favorite character was always the chubby fellow. (He’s in the picture up there at the top, sitting down.)

    But I sorta maybe do forget: did Spade turn out bad in the end? I know he was a wicked chap…but that’s what makes him spicy!

    Kinda disappointed there’s no picture of Dashiell Hammett!

    • It was! I think it could be quite Professorial too… *muses on empty shelf space* Yes, I love him too – Sydney Greenstreet playing Casper “the fat man” Gutman – and I was surprised that he didn’t get bigger billing on the movie poster.

      I reckon he remained kinda morally ambiguous to the end. But he stayed true to his own twisted code…

      I completely forgot!! But there is now… he’s quite…

      • They weren’t empty! They were stuffed! Gutman? And bigger billing? *laughing lots* That’s good right there. Poor chap. He was funny, if I recall. Though I might be wrong. I saw the movie when it premiered, you know.

        What sort of gun did he carry?

        *laughing lots and lots* He’s spicy! I’ve got to get a hairdo like that…

  5. I read it not too very long ago. I loved it. I wanted more. It is a classic for certain. I think I’ve seen/read the offspring of this style. Unfortunately, not all of them the grade. It might be me cranking like a senior, but the slick cops and detectives, at least in the states, are less stellar.

    • Yes, I think practically all ‘noir’ follows on from either Hammett or Chandler. But today’s writers seem to feel the need to pack them full of graphic everything – sex, violence, language – whereas Hammett shows how it can be done by a few hints and leaving the rest up to the reader to fill in the blanks. I much prefer the oldies on the whole…

      • Ditto! Growing up we occasionally watched movies like The Music Man and Oklahoma. It wasn’t until I got in my teens that I picked up some of those nuances. I miss those kinds of movies.

        • Yes, that was the thing about it – you could enjoy these things at whatever age and it was only as you grew up that you spotted the things that were only hinted at. Now sadly it’s all ‘in your face’ meaning you have to be so much more careful about what you’re letting kids watch/read…

  6. I grew up watching The Maltese Falcon on the small screen with all my brothers and sisters gathered round for yet another go. In Los Angeles in those days, a show called The Million Dollar Movie played one film all week, showing it night after night at eight o’clock or whatever it was–The High and the Mighty with John Wayne, The Magnificent Seven with Yul Brenner and all the rest. Seven or eight or even all nine of us, on a good night, gathered round a black and white tube. Nobody smiled more broadly than Mom and Dad at this spectacle. Those were the days.

    My favorite Chandler is The Long Goodbye, though I can’t say I’ve read them all. Thanks so much for this review.

    • I regret the passing of the days when the whole family got together round one TV – I spent my childhood being indoctrinated on all my Dad’s favourite films. I actually know the cinema from before I was born better than the stuff from my own youth. I must have seen this film at least twenty times and still think it’s just as brilliant. My brother has watched it so often that, if you turn the sound down, he can do all the dialogue! Bogey is great, but my true love is Cagney…

      The only one I’ve read is The Big Sleep – must rectify that. I’d like to read some more of Hammett too – I feel a classic noir phase coming on…

  7. Another author that I haven’t read but think that I really should and.. another excellent review that gives us a good idea of the content but not so much that it will spoil it for anyone (like me) who wants to read it for themselves.

    • Thanks, Cleo! I just get so caught up in the new releases that there’s hardly ever time for the classic authors. That’s partly why I’m seriously trying to stop adding so much new stuff to the TBR, ‘cos some of these old books are brilliant. I guess that’s why they’re classics!

  8. I do envy you reading Hammett for the first time. I know the books almost off by heart, and they have always set the standard for “noir” for me.

  9. I agree about how it compares with The Big Sleep! The Big Sleep was interesting, but because the plot was so meandering, it didn’t really stick with me. And I think the characters in Maltese Falcon are more vivid (almost in the way Dicken’s characters are so vivid) It was weird, though, because of how close The Maltese Falcon was to the movie; reading it was almost like watching the movie in slow motion in my head!

    • Yes, I know what you mean about the Dickens thing – slightly caricatured, but not so much as to make them feel impossible. I don’t think I’ve ever read another book that felt so close to the movie – I actually wondered for a moment if he’d maybe written the screenplay first and had to check that he hadn’t. I’ve got the book of Psycho now – wonder how it will compare to the movie…

  10. I’ve been meaning to read this for years. I much prefer the old stuff too, where they could write a good story without unnecessary gore and sex. Thanks for reminding me of this. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    • I wish today’s authors would think more about why the classics are classics, to be honest – I can’t understand why they feel they have to be so graphic. I think they underestimate their readers’ ability to fill in the blanks. After some of the really nasty books I’ve read (or abandoned) recently it was pure pleasure to return to something done as well as this… 🙂

  11. I always wanted to read The Maltese Falcon. Well I guess I better put it in my list. Mmmm, looks like I can put it in for late August, yep. I just did. August 25th. I’ll schedule the film for that weekend too.
    Thanks for the inspiring review.

    • Thanks, Bill! I’ve been meaning to read it for years too. Well worth it! And I’m so glad to learn I’m not the only one who plans my reading months ahead… 😉

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