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The Maltese Falcon
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on February 3, 2004
The mystery story is a morality tale and the tough guy genre started here. The very title is exotic. Dashiell Hammett was Raymond Chandler's model.
Sam Spade is described as a blond Satan. His partner is Miles Archer. They are hired to secure the return of a Miss Wonderly's sister. Through the San Francisco PD Spade is called out because his partner is down, his Webley-Fosbery is missing a bullet. Miles Archer was supposed to be tailing Floyd Thursby. Thursby has been shot, too. Spade was involved with Archer's wife. There are, needless to say, complcations.
Spade discovers that Miss Wonderly's name is really Brigid O'Shaughnessy. Soon Brigid is confronted with Spade's observation that she is feeding him rehearsed lines. A man named Flitcraft disappeared from a Tacoma suburb. When Spade found him in Spokane he and his wife divorced quietly. The man changed his life when he was nearly killed on a sidewalk by a falling beam. Brigid is surprised that Sam Spade takes such a high-handed manner with the police.
Brigid claims that she and Floyd Thursby and Joe Cairo were involved in a plot to obtain the black bird, the Maltese falcon. She has not touched it and has only seen it once. It is possible police brutality was the norm in 1929 when THE MALTESE FALCON was written. At any rate, midway through the story, Joe Cairo receives a going over. Brigid is to stay with Spade's secretary, Effie Perrine, because it is feared she is in danger.
The Maltese falcon has to do with tribute paid by the crusaders. The treasured piece ended up in the hands of a Greek dealer. It belongs to either a Russian general or to the King of Spain. It is discovered that Thursby was a bodyguard to a gangster, after all this is prohibition, who had immense gambling debts. Spade feels that his clients are entitled to a decent amount of secrecy and refuses to have discussions with the police who are attempting to disentangle the issues. Brigid, instead of staying with Effie, goes to the boat La Paloma, and the dying captain delivers the bird to Spade.
In San Francisco I ate at John's Grill twice. From that location Sam Spade lurches into the finale of this crime novel, walking into a trap with Brigid. The story is high in atmospherics, ultimately dated, and curious. What is pictured is a man beset by evil forces on all sides. Under the circumstances a person has to take a line and stick to it. Brigid's attempt at trickery backfires and the treasure is a counterfeit.
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Dashiell Hammett is best known as the man who wrote "Maltese Falcon," the classic noir mystery behind the classic noir film. That book is included here, along with the confusing "Red Harvest" and magnificent, polished "Thin Man," two other crime novels by Hammett.
The mysterious "Maltese Falcon" is at the center of international intrigue -- and murder. Cynical Sam Spade and his partner Miles Archer are hired by a beautiful, seemingly helpless woman to find a man who she says has run off with her sister. Not only is the woman lying, but someone kills Archer. A slimy fop, a cultured gangster, and a breathy femme fatale are all in the same web of crime and murder, centered on a bejewelled bird called the Maltese Falcon.
"Red Harvest" is the full-length novel introduction of the cool-as-ice Continental Op. He travels to Personville (or "Poisonville," depending on your accent) to meet a client. Except the client has just been murdered. Rather than go home to San Francisco, the Continental Op meets the dead man's wealthy father, and begins a one-man battle against the vicious gangsters who control Personville. But the death and mayhem draw him in, threatening his life as he struggles to stay afloat.
"The Thin Man" was Hammett's last and lightest novel. Nick and Nora Charles are a wealthy couple who have a weird kind of compatibility, but ex-private-eye Nick is through with crime solving. Or so he thinks. One day when Nick is out drinking, he encounters young Dorothy Wynant, daughter of peculiar inventor Clyde Wynant. Her dad has vanished, and soon his secretary/mistress is found dead. Nick finds himself sucked unwillingly into a sordid, messy crime that will leave more murdered bodies behind it.
This collection shows the unevenness of Hammett's writing at times. "Maltese Falcon" and "Thin Man" are complicated and polished, while "Red Harvest" is a dense mass of shootings, conspiracies and mysterious crimes. What they all have in common is tense, sparse writing, and hardened, cynical anti-heroes who are surrounded by other ambiguous characters.
The three-pack of "The Maltese Falcon," "The Thin Man," and "Red Harvest" is a good way to introduce yourself to Hammett's gritty, engrossing crime novels. Highly recommended.
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on October 19, 2003
This novel remains one of the original masterworks in the genre of American detective fiction-a genre Hammett virtually created single-handedly. Hammett captures the darkness of the underworld with such a subtle touch that it leaves the reader somewhat tainted and wiser for the experience. Perhaps even more influential than his ability to cast long shadows is his ability to capture the singularity of mind with which his champion takes on his case; Hammett's character development embodies simple brilliance and brilliant simplicity.
Like all good detective novels, the morality is stark, and the purpose of each character is clearly defined. Unlike many modern writers, Hammett focuses more on the motivations of those struggling to do the right thing, not those who fecklessly step over the line and then lament about their self-inflicted conflicts. Absent from Archer and Spade are the clumsy, moralizing speeches so common in today's mystery fiction. Appropriately, the only reward for Hammett's detectives is in doing the right job and doing the job right.
For those who like detective novels, this work is definitely worth some close scrutiny. Hammett gets high marks for originality, and his influence is clear even sixty years later. Careful readers will see the same stark, principled discipline in characters such as Travis McGee, Spenser, Lou Boldt, Lucas Davenport, and Harry Bosch, to name a few. All of these modern characters owe a great deal to the path blazed by Hammett in his ability to create a character worth caring about and a cause worth believing in. True fans of the genre can do little else than tip their hat to the master-and perhaps re-read this masterpiece every few years.
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on June 12, 2003
A beautiful red-head walks into private detective Sam Spade's office one day, and he is soon neck-deep in the hunt for a fabled black bird that is supposed to be incredibly valuable. This is one of the most significant novels ever written in the mystery genre. Protagonist Spade is the epitome of the hard-boiled private dick, and author Dashiell Hammett's lean, economical style has influenced many of the writers who followed him. For me, the main attractions of this novel did not include the resolution of the mystery. I didn't really care about what happened to the black bird. I enjoyed Hammett's style, the sharp dialogue, and the intricate double-crosses that the various characters pull on each other with varying levels of success. The lengthy scene near the end of the story wherein Spade has all the principle characters together in one room and tries to hammer out an agreement that will allow most of them to get what they want while satisfying the police's need for a fall guy as well is a real highlight. This novel is cheerfully amoral and very entertaining.
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on April 5, 2003
Hammett's classic tale of Sam Spade and a mysterious statuette is widely lauded as the "greatest detective novel of all time." While we should always be suspicious of such claims for a novel ("the greatest" by what standard?), "The Maltese Falcon" is certainly one of the most significant. It defined the 'hard-boiled' style, and inspired an entirely new genre in which the anti-heroic detective is just as tainted as the villains. What strikes the reader most about this novel is the absolute absence of interiority: there is not a single moment when the narrator takes us behind the eyes of a character and gives us direct access to his or her thoughts. Not once are we given this privileged position which, as readers of contemporary fiction, we're likely to take for granted. Any sign of what characters are thinking is given through facial expressions, gestures, or tone of voice. Even then, Hammett's descriptions are so cold and clinical that they read more like the stage directions for a screenplay or the dutifully enumerated details of a police report. Surprisingly, this makes the novel extremely visual - the absence of florid description forces the reader's imagination into action (note the number of reviewers who say, 'I hadn't seen the movie, but I could clearly see every moment of the story in my mind.'). It's a clever choice for a detective novel, too. It makes us proceed entirely from sensory clues, much like Spade has to. Showing us the world as the disenchanted Spade might see it - without feeling, without moral reflection, with nothing but objective physical reality - Hammett tells us more about his famous protagonist than two-hundred pages of purple prose could ever do. But by withholding from the reader vital details that Spade has long ago deduced, he is imbued with a frightening power which gives his early depiction as "a blond satan" a chilling resonance. Perhaps this is more than a detective story after all. Hammett's prose style certainly takes some getting used to. It's an adjustment that some readers might find difficult to make, and a novel they might enjoy more on reflection. It stays with you, that's for sure.
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on November 29, 2002
Maybe the movie spoiled the freshness of this book for me. Throughout the tale I couldn't shake the voices of Bogart and Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet . . . or the images of them elaborately dancing around one another, in search of the mysterious statuette. Although the book had more detail and events than the film (including allusions to homosexuality and some outright lovemaking between Sam Spade and the mysterious woman from Hong Kong), the screenplay did catch quite a bit of this noirish quest so that the book seemed almost a shadow of the movie in the end. Indeed, Bogart and company made this tale decidedly their own.
I suppose this is as much a credit to Hammett and his creation as it was to the director, actors and writers of the film it inspired. But too much of this book depended for me on not knowing what was going to happen. But, of course, I did. Some of the dark resonance was lost too, by this fact, while the characters came across as mere caricatures of themselves (which, of course, they weren't since they preceded the film's cast). Nor did Spade's sharp retorts, high-handed attitude with women, cops and crooks, and his generally cold (not cool) disposition seem to me to mask a deeper and more sensitive soul, despite his final "noble" speech to Brigid O'Shaughnessy.
It is certainly not entirely the fault of the book that its impact has been dissipated by the existence of a film which so fully captures it, but it does suggest that the book lacks something at its core since so much of it depends on knowing (or not knowing!) what is happening rather than on seeing it all a-fresh in the mind's eye through the medium of the printed word. That the characters lacked any real depth (their development being fully realized in the movement of the plot alone), worked decidely against the magic of the book. And, regrettably, the long-anticipated denouement with the falcon proved, in the final analysis, to be insufficient to redeem the complex plot and its mysterious machinations. And yet, withal, the book was tight and quick and kept me reading . . . though it lacked the richness of character I detected in The Glass Key which was, I think, Hammett's better piece by far.
SWM
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on January 21, 2002
The Maltese Falcon with Bogart in it is one of those films that is so archetypal that, without ever having seen the whole thing through, I still have vivid images in my mind of it. So I had certain biases and expectations picking up Hammett's novel. It took me a bit before I could get into the style of it. It was more than style, it was mindset. The San Francisco that the characters inhabit is harsh and unforgiving. When a certain Miss Wonderly shows up at Spade's office, desperate for help, Sam and his partner are more worried about sizing her up sexually than in helping a damsel in distress.
She tells them a story about the disappearance of her sister and her suspected kidnapping by a man named Floyd Thursby. She convinces them to follow him and to find her sister, if she is alive. Sam's partner is killed soon after and the plot of the novel becomes more intricate and turning. The best word for it would be multi-layered. Identities are dropped and assumed constantly.
Good and evil have no place in this novel. This is what gave me so much trouble in the beginning. Spade's own secretary calls him "the most contemptible man God ever made" when he sets his mind to it. This is true. Hammett creates in Spade a man as cold-blooded and calculating as the criminals he fights against. Actually, he's probably worse. Spade at times seems demonic. He is compared to "a blond Satan" a couple of times and the yellowish color of his pupils also adds to this conception. His smiles are empty and his face is composed of V's. He looks out only for himself and you sense that he would backstab and betray his best friend. Besides this, he makes a great hero.
Once you accept the laws of this pulp fiction world, the novel becomes very enjoyable. One of the things that bothered me is that the characters have no inner life, or at least in the text. The only things you know about them are visual cues. The narrator is outside of them. While this works well for a screenplay (which at times this novel seems like), it is very hard to pull that off in a novel. Hammett does, though. Like I said, you have to accept what the author gives you, unconditionally.
I highly recommend this work even though it took some adjustment in the reading. It is a classic. A contemporary writer that you should check out if you like Hammett is James Ellroy.
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on October 4, 2000
In "The Maltese Falcon," Sam Spade and his partner Miles Archer operate a detective agency in San Francisco circa 1930. Spade, the archetypal private eye, keeps liquor in his desk drawer and rolls his own cigarettes. Frequently. Unlike Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe novels, the action is written in third person, but the focus remains on Spade.
A young woman calling herself Miss Wonderly, flashing a lot of cash, hires Spade and Archer to follow a man she suspects is hiding her missing sister. That night, Archer and the man are shot dead in different places and within minutes of each other. The cops suspect Spade as Archer's killer and are breathing down Spade's neck, and it doesn't help his case that he's been having an affair with Archer's clingy, melodramatic widow.
Meanwhile, Spade is engaged by a gaudily dressed fop named Joel Cairo and a globular glutton named Gutman to locate a specific statuette of a black bird with an ancient history. The so-called "Maltese Falcon" is or has been under the guardianship of a coolly devious vixen named Brigid O'Shaughnessy, who becomes Spade's romantic foil. The villains are painted in strokes so broad I can feel the dye bleeding off the pages into my fingers.
Spade's detective work is acute but the plot doesn't allow much payoff from it; eventually the falcon almost literally falls into his lap. I also found the last couple of chapters anticlimactic and not very exciting, with too much parleying between the hero and the villains. There is one good plot revelation at the end, though, which almost makes it all worthwhile. While I prefer the rapid-fire dialogue, labyrinthine plots, and subtle characterization of Chandler's Marlowe novels (admittedly conceived well after and undeniably influenced by Spade), "The Maltese Falcon" gives a fine glimpse of the mystery novel breaking English barriers and drifting to American shores.
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on November 15, 2000
When one thinks of a mystery, one should think of this book. Sam Spade, the archetype tough guy with street smarts, tries to solve the mysterious death of his partner, finds out the truth behind the constant lies of a beautiful woman, deals with the police breathing down his neck, and deals with some vile criminals.
This book grabs you with intrigue and one plot twist after another. New characters, new leads and new ideas are all constantly introduced. Is the innocent looking girl the most evil of them all, or was it the cheating wife? Could the main character himself be a murderer? What was the mysterious package? Questions that lead to riddles that lead to more questions. It's hard not to get caught up in this book.
Though the book doesn't really delve deep into any character, and the fluidity of his writing may cause you to re-read a paragraph or two, this book is a short, solid, mystery that should definitely be read.
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on July 13, 1998
The Maltese Falcon is a classic detective tale. The book contained several plot twists and waited to the very end to draw all the facts together. The story reminded me of last year's LA Confidential with its wit and intriguing story. It is an amazing story and so elegantly written. I gave it 4 stars instead of five because I did not like how open ended the story left the relationship between Sam and Iva and because Sam seemed to tell people he was going to use them as the 'fall guy' and they wouldn't do anything about it. I expected the characters to show more emotion, considering they were going to jail for 20yrs to Life.
It is an enjoyable read and a must. Enjoy this classic early 20th century story.
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