"The Maltese Falcon" is one of Dashiell Hammett's most popular novels and one of his best. It originally appeared in serial form in "Black Mask" magazine, 1929-1930. The stories in Hammett's novels are typically a mite uninteresting and the characters a little underwritten. Readers don't complain, because story and characters were never the point. They are the vehicle for Hammett's delicious hard-boiled language and biting social commentaries. Published in 1930, "The Maltese Falcon" is a noir masterpiece that offers the best of both worlds. It's full of the blunt talk and pervasive cynicism that typify the genre. But "The Maltese Falcon" also gives us an intricate story and better-drawn characters than is customary in Hammett's work, and it's his sexiest novel as well.
Our detective is Sam Spade, a San Francisco private investigator who, with his partner Miles Archer, owns his own agency. Sam's a man in his thirties who has been around, seen every side of the law, and come away unimpressed. He's hardened; he's practical; he only cares that he come out on top of each case he investigates, and richer than when he started. One day a striking woman walks into his office distraught over her younger sister who has run off with a ne'er-do-well. Sam doesn't believe her story, but he believes her money. He takes the case, and his partner Miles is murdered as a result. To make matters worse, Sam is suspected of murdering the man who was suspected of Miles' murder. So he's left with little choice other than to track down his mysterious client and solve both crimes. Sam's trying to extricate himself from this mess only leads him into an ever-widening web of deceit. A Greek named Joel Cairo, a ruthless international fence named Gutman, and the various identities of Sam's lovely and seductive client are all after something which they will stop at nothing to get. Sam must find out what it is and where it is before the police conveniently pin everything on him.
The novel's sinuous story and trio of well-drawn characters elevate "The Maltese Falcon" from good entertaining noir to just plain good writing. Sam Spade, his client Brigid O'Shaughnessy, and her enemy Joel Cairo are almost three-dimensional characters. Hammett reveals more of their manners and personalities than he usually does for his characters. And I think it's enough. If these characters were completely flushed out, it would take some of the edge off the story. I'm sure that the last thing Dashiell Hammett wanted to do was write a character study.
Noir is by its nature cynical, but Hammett's cynicism is more audacious than most. It seems that in every novel he finds a new way to smack the reader in the face. I've often wondered if he developed his stories around that purpose. In any case, it's what I love about Hammett's work, and "The Maltese Falcon" excels in its cynicism as well as its story. This time the shocker is the book's attitude toward love: Our hero doesn't hesitate to sell someone that he loves down the river out of pride. He admits it, and he admits that he'll regret it....for a while. Money might have made a difference. He admits that too. "What of it?" says Sam. The last chapter of "The Maltese Falcon" is Dashiell Hammett in full force. I recommend reading it twice.
There's no question that if you don't like bold-faced cynicism you won't like Dashiell Hammett's books. If you do like it, Hammett can't be beat. I'm admittedly difficult to please when it comes to fiction, even noir fiction. I nitpick about Hammett's work, which I like, and which any fan of the Unsentimental will like. For all of Hammett's ability to rattle readers by throwing basic moral assumptions back in their faces, and for all of his ability to entertain, his writing is rarely perfect. But "The Maltese Falcon" is nearly so. It's got sex, violence, story, characters, hard-boiled dialogue (but not as many great one-liners as some other of Hammett's novels), and relentless cynicism. "The Maltese Falcon" is a brilliant and very readable work of noir fiction that fans of unceremonious detectives won't want to miss. And it's a great American novel that I would recommend to anyone.