If you're a fan of noir detective fiction but you haven't read this novel, fix that at the earliest opportunity.
Posted by Jason Venter (October 16, 2016)
If you've paid much attention to "noir" cinema at all, you've at least heard of a movie called The Maltese Falcon, which starred Humphrey Bogart in a tough-guy role that supposedly ranks among his best. I had heard of it, certainly, though I had never watched it. Then, as I've been working my way through mystery fiction over the last few years, I found out that the movie was based on a well regarded book, also called "The Maltese Falcon."
As far as I know, "The Maltese Falcon" is the third novel that Dashiell Hammett ever wrote, out of a total of five. It reads differently from the two very good ones that preceded it, abandoning the first-person perspective for a third-person one that takes away some of the intimacy but makes up for it with some of the genre's best dialogue.
The hero is Sam Spade, a detective working in California. He has a partner and a feisty secretary, and their life is forever changed with the arrival of a beautiful redhead. She tells them that she is trying to find an oaf of a man who kidnapped her sister, and she has a meeting with him that night. Will someone from the office please trail him, so that if he returns to the sister after the meeting, her identity can be discovered?
Sam's partner jumps at the job, because the woman is beautiful and willing to pay handsomely, but he doesn't wind up making it through the night. Someone gunned him down, and now Sam is determined to find the killer while convincing the suspicious local police force that he's not the killer. Quickly, other characters enter the tale, and it becomes obvious that the intoxicatingly beautiful redhead wasn't telling the whole story.
I was familiar with Sam Spade before reading the book, because I used to listen to a lot of radio dramas that you can find on some Internet radio stations (or, in my childhood, aired late at night on AM radio stations from several states away). I've always enjoyed the stories, and I enjoyed this one, which was the origination of the character. According to a Wikipedia entry, this is the only appearance the detective made in any of Hammett's full-length fiction, though he subsequently would appear in three short stories. I look forward to reading those eventually, as well.
Sam Spade is an intriguing character, because he has a tough streak that runs right through him, and he works in general for good. However, his motivations aren't always crystal clear, and he's not afraid to flirt with illegal activity if he believes it will lead to a positive outcome. That keeps the next step that he might take during a given moment a secret, and it mixes well with some of the plot twists along the way. I've read a fair bit of fiction that was modeled after this sort of novel, including stuff from Robert B. Parker and Robert Crais, among others, but I still had little luck guessing the plot twists. And yet they made perfect sense, in their aftermath.
My only real complaint with the novel is that the last 20 pages or so are almost entirely dialog, and even Hammett can't keep that interesting for as long as he tries to, where assorted characters are basically just sitting in a room and talking. But it's a minor flaw that some won't even agree is a flaw, and the novel as a whole easily ranks among the finest the subgenre ever saw... and ever will see.
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[Reviews] The Thin ManA breezy sort of detective story that makes me wish Hammett explored these characters in additional novels.
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