The Maltese Falcon
by Dashiell Hammett.
Orion Books 2002 (1930)
San Francisco, 1929. A woman arrives at the offices of Spade and Archer, private detectives, and reveals she fears for her sister’s safety in the company of a man called Floyd Thursby. Her affecting performance sets Sam Spade off on an investigation in which the body count rises to four, bluff is countered by double bluff, and more alcohol and tobacco is consumed than can be good for one’s health.
While remaining in one small corner of California we hear about incidents in London, Constantinople and Hong Kong, and learn of historical events in the Mediterranean. How is everything linked, how does Sam Spade go about his investigations, and how is it that he nearly always seems one step ahead of everybody when by all accounts he should be behind them?
Hammet’s classic crime mystery is as good as its reputation makes it, and while The Maltese Falcon is possibly better known in its incarnation as a 1941 film noir starring Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre I shall always have the immediacy of this text from nearly a century ago paramount whenever I think of the story.
This is a tightknit novel with a distinctive cast of characters, dressed in the prejudices that pertained at the time whenever white males wrote of their fellow humans. The principal females, usually addressed as sweetheart, darling or angel, are invariably young-ish and pretty and playing to type such as the vamp or drama queen, the efficient secretary or emotional leech. The males are only a little more varied, either tough-talking detectives trying to be top dog or else deferential colleagues; one of the villains is fat-shamed, another addressed as ‘punk’ to rile him up, a third described as Levantine (a synonym for Arab or possibly Jew). But despite the apparent stereotypes each comes across as an individual with whom Sam Spade delights in verbal sparring, and sometimes even real fisticuffs.
Because of the author’s background as a Pinkerton detective all the operational details feel authentic enough; the setting is a San Francisco in which it’s still possible to follow the action through named streets, apartment blocks and hotels but the atmosphere remains claustrophobic, with most of the interactions taking place in closed rooms, lobbies and offices. The plot itself is full of red herrings, involving a wild goose chase for the titular object frequently described as “the black bird”, but throughout it’s Spade that dominates our attention: we bystanders see most of what happens in his presence. Additionally, we have to guess what’s really going on in his mind from external clues — his changing demeanour more than any sardonic utterances, themselves clearly designed to deflect and misdirect from what he’s really calculating, to wrongfoot anybody and everybody, including the reader.
It’s the sharp dialogue which truly distinguishes this novel, so clever and witty that it was largely taken over verbatim in both the 1931 and 1941 film scripts. The second version had to remove most of the sexual innuendo (including homosexual references) and more explicit sequences (such as a strip search) but has great characterisations; although more racy the first movie, with its ham acting and spacious interior sets that wouldn’t look out of place on a theatre stage, somehow loses the intimate atmosphere I think of as intrinsic to the novel.
Central to the plot, the axis on which everything turns, is the figure of Spade. He is by no means perfect and, a hundred years later, it’s hard not to be appalled by all the drinking and the smoking and the casual attitude to violence and death. But I think most of us would be on Sam’s side or at any rate hope he’d be on ours: mercenary he may be (he has to make money, after all) he nevertheless has an ethical dimension which it’s hard to fault: if villains won’t amend their behaviour they deserve to have justice meted out to them, even if at times it’s rough justice. And you can’t help but be in awe of someone who choreographs his way through the terrains sown with mines by almost everyone he comes across — thieves, murderers, lovers, district attorneys. Working with brains as well as brawn he gets to the truth, to his satisfaction as well as our relief.
At the heart of the novel is of course the classic MacGuffin, the Maltese Falcon. Hammett concocts such a plausible historical background for this fictional objet d’art that it still fools a few gullible readers, but MacGuffin it remains: as a stimulus for the plot it’s effective but it isn’t what the story is really about. What is it about? To get an inkling of that nothing serves better than an actual read of the novel.
6/21 TBR Books in 2021