The tappity-tap-tap and the thin bell and muffled whir of Effie Perine’s typewriting came through the closed door. Somewhere in a neighboring office a power-driven machine vibrated dully. On Spade’s desk a limp cigarette smoldered in a brass tray filled with the remains of limp cigarettes. Ragged grey flakes of cigarette-ash dotted the yellow top of the desk and the green blotter and the papers that were there. A buff-curtained window, eight or ten inches open, let in from the court a current of air faintly scented with ammonia. The ashes on the desk twitched and crawled in the current.
So begins PI Sam Spade’s famous meeting with Miss Wonderly, prototype of a thousand private-eye client meetings. Apparently the lovely Miss Wonderly has a younger sister, who has come to San Francisco with a man called Floyd Thursby. Miss Wonderly wants to hire Spade and his partner Miles Archer to follow Thursby, and even though they instinctively don’t believe her story for a moment, her cash money is real and so they take the case.
That night, Archer is found dead by the side of a road. Spade is a suspect (he has been seeing Archer’s wife Ida – somewhat against his better judgement), but he knows Miss Wonderly is involved somehow. But is Miss Wonderly really Miss Wonderly? And if Thursby killed Archer, who killed Thursby that same night? And how does all this relate to the Knights Templar and a tax paid to King Charles V in the form of a falcon?
The Maltese Falcon first appeared in the hard-boiled pages of Black Mask in 1929, before being published in book form the following year. You won’t have to go far before somebody recommends it to you. In it, Max Allan Collins said, ‘Hammett defines, perfects, and abandons the private eye in one masterpiece’. Raymond Chandler said ‘Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it in the alley’. It was voted #2 mystery of all time by the Mystery Writers of America, and is number 10 in the CWA top 100. You probably don’t need my recommendation after all that.
It has been filmed three times, most famously with Humphrey Bogart in the role of Sam Spade, a surprisingly-slim-and-young-looking Peter Lorre as the creepy Joel Cairo, Sydney Greenstreet as corpulent Falcon-obsessive Kasper Gutman, and Mary Astor as Miss Wonderly.
Sam Spade is so occupied in the imagination by Humphrey Bogart that it’s something of a surprise that they look nothing like one another. In fact, Sam Spade as described by Hammett is physically rather odd.
Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The V motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down – from high flat temples – in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.
The Folio Society’s artwork to the right captures his strange looks. Those yellow-grey eyes frequently glow. Moving down, his hairless, bulky body and sagging shoulders give him the look of a shaved bear. Nonetheless, he has plenty of fans amongst the ladies.
Add to Spade’s oddity the vivid primary colours (a trick of Hammett’s which I also noticed when I read The Glass Key, and which seem so strange in a book which the Bogart movie has made seem so black and white – if that makes any sense).
She wore two shades of blue that had been selected because of her eyes. The hair curling from under her blue hat was darkly red, her full lips more brightly red. White teeth glistened in the crescent her timid smile made.
Finally, mix in the hyper-detailed description which frequently freezes a moment in time, and which follows Spade (and only Spade) closely but without ever revealing his thoughts.
Spade’s thick fingers made a cigarette with deliberate care, sifting a measured quantity of tan flakes down into curved paper, spreading the flakes so that they lay equal at the ends with a slight depression in the middle, thumbs rolling the paper’s inner edge down and up under the outer edge as forefingers pressed it over, thumbs and fingers sliding to the paper cylinder’s ends to hold it even while tongue licked the flap, left forefinger and thumb pinching their end while right forefinger and thumb smoothed the damp seam, right forefinger and thumb twisting their end and lifting the other to Spade’s mouth. He picked up the pigskin and nickel lighter that had fallen to the floor, manipulated it, and with the cigarette burning in a corner of his mouth stood up.
… and all told the whole book is stylistically very odd. Certainly it seems quite experimental for a simple hard-boiled story with a macguffin.
In his introduction to the 1934 edition, Hammett wrote that:
Spade has no original. He is 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.
It’s difficult to know what Spade is thinking, as we only get to hear what he’s saying, so we’re never sure whose side he is on as the various factions gathered in San Francisco try to get their hands on the famous Maltese Falcon. He can certainly take care of himself in any situation, but it’s not entirely that he has got the best of everybody at the end.
Wonderful stuff, not as complex as The Glass Key, nor as funny as The Thin Man, but a great book to read.
The Maltese Falcon
First published in the US by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1930 (serialised in Black Mask in 1929)
This edition Orion Books, 2003
Source: Past Offences library
Final destination: A keeper
Stylistically this is a fascinating book – I was about a third of the way into it before I reliased you were never privvy to Spade’s thoughts, only his actions, and I was half expecting Hammett to give that up as a bad job long before the end. It makes it a weirdly intense book, as you’re increasingly on edge waiting to see what’s going to unfold.
That said, the Macguffin element isn’t well integrated for my tastes, especially given the ending – I was tremendously glad I’d seen the Bogart movie before reading this, as that finale really comes out of nowhere!
It may be my bias, but I think it’s hard to go wrong with Hammett. And this is a good example.
Great review, Rich! I figure that, since I love this book, The Dain Curse, and Red Harvest, I haven’t abandoned the hard-boiled school completely! But I do think Hammett straddles P.I. and traditional mystery fiction very well! And, oh, the bliss of that movie . . .
Oddly enough, I still haven’t read The Glass Key or The Thin Man (another brilliant film). Something to look forward to . . .
I read The Glass Key last year – brilliant stuff but a bit less immediate than Falcon. However, I’ve never finished Red Harvest… will have to give it another go as it’s on the CWA top 100.
I read Red Harvest two or three times. I even dreamed of turning it into a play! It has the structure of a series of short stories or episodes bound into an overarching novel, some great characters, and some really nice traditional mystery strategy interwoven in a study of social corruption. It’s very raw! I highly recommend it!
I loved this book and I think part of it was that it seemed so much like the Bogart film. But then I liked The Thin Man a lot and it was different from the film. Now I have to talk myself into reading The Glass Key and Red Harvest.
I loved this and–like others–that has a lot to do with the Bogart film. It was great that the dialogue was lifted pretty much straight out of the book into the film. I could hear the voices of the actors as I was reading. Terrific stuff!
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I may also prefer THE GLASS KEY, but THE MALTESE FALCON remains for me one of the few ‘classics’ that really lives up to its reputation
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The Collected Dashiell Hammett containing all the novels, novellas, and short stories is available at The Internet Archive.
Such a classic, I just know I loved it and could never criticize it now…
THE MALTESE FALCON is one of those surprisingly common cases where the movie is better than the book. Not that there’s anything wrong with the book. It’s a great book and it’s easily Hammett’s best. But the movie is better.
THE THIN MAN movie is much better than the book, IMHO.
I was pretty underwhelmed by RED HARVEST. Unless you’re a really hardcore hardboiled fan I’m not sure I’d bother with that one. A bit too much wallowing in corruption and nihilism. I haven’t really enjoyed any of Hammett’s books aside from THE THIN MAN and THE MALTESE FALCON. If I’m going to read hardboiled stuff I’d prefer to read Chandler, or the early pulp fiction of Erle Stanley Gardner. But then maybe I’m more at home with Venetian vases than with alleys!
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Hard-boiled is definitely NOT my thing, but I thought The Dain Curse was clever and there’s something about red harvest that really grips me. I understand that it’s not to everyone’s taste though.
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