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