The Maltese Falcon
I wasn’t sure how I felt about reading a hardboiled detective novel from the 1930s, even though I remember liking the Humphrey Bogart movie years ago. But one page in and I understood why Dashiell Hammett is considered a master of this genre. It’s a tightly written story about detective Sam Spade, three murders, a valuable falcon statue and an assortment of shrewd characters on both sides of the law.
The story begins when a beautiful and mysterious Miss Wonderly hires Spade and his partner Miles Archer to keep an eye on man she claims has run off with her teenage sister. Spade and Archer might not believe their new client, but they take the assignment and her retainer. When Archer and the man he’s following turn up dead, the first person the police suspect is Spade. That begins the reader’s view into the long-standing antagonistic relationship between Spade and the police, specifically Detective Polhaus and Lieutenant Dundy.
Written in the external third-person narrative, the reader gets no look into the characters’ thoughts and must decide their motives and truthfulness based entirely on their words and actions. There are plenty of shady characters to figure out, too. Spade quickly discovers Miss Wonderly is lying, that her real name is Brigid O’Shaughnessy and that she’s deeply mixed up in a scheme to get the priceless falcon. But the truth is also muddled up by others who want the bird, a bejeweled and fashionable Joel Cairo, a slick-talking Caspar Gutman and his bodyguard Wilmer.
Spade’s character is a fascinating mix between calculating, cutthroat, self-serving and occasionally soft-hearted, particularly around beautiful women. That makes for plenty of romantic tension between him and O’Shaughnessy, who is just as slick to manage. She says she’s hired him to help her get the statue, which she’s promised to Gutman. Whether it’s a square deal is for the reader to discover in a twisted and fast-moving plot with plenty of red herrings.
The only woman who has Spade figured out is his loyal secretary Effie Perine, who is willing to put up with a lot of guff because she genuinely likes him. The fondness is mutual, but seemingly platonic, with some teasing affection, and maybe that’s why it works.
The big showdown at the end between all the bird’s players is a section worthy of several re-reads, first to get the facts and later to enjoy the smart and manipulative negotiations between Spade and the rest. It’s never clear, until the final page, who has the upper hand.
Every word counts in this terrific story which is just over 200 pages and both easy and fun to read. I recommend The Maltese Falcon to readers of crime fiction and to all readers who are looking for a great story.
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