Title: The Maltese Falcon
Author: Dashiell Hammett
Genre: Detective Noir
Length: 217 pages
Read: May 25-26, 2011
Summary: Pure awesomeness.
There are so many reasons why this is the archetypal detective novel. It’s pure pleasure from start to finish.
Let’s start with the writing. The prose is lean, but it has a way of sparing with the reader, a delightful economy and turn of phrase. Things are handled in a straightforward sequential manner. Simultaneously spartan and luxurious. There’s actually a surprising amount of description. Nearly every character is detailed on first meet, often with a good full two paragraphs. But they’re worth it (more on that later). Spade‘s actions are spelled out in exquisite and exhaustive detail — there must be at least fifty cigarettes rolled and smoked in this tiny book and countless details of dressing, moving from place to place, etc. Somehow these don’t drag, not at all. Action too, is quick, but handled in a kind of cold clear detail. What there isn’t, is one whit of interior monologue. The closest we get is the occasional, “Sam’s expression contained a hint of smugness” or “her hands twisted in her lap.” And more than anything, the prose is fun to read.
Plotting. The story is byzantine, and involves no one knowing exactly what’s going on, but Sam being a damn good judge of what’s likely to happen. There’s perhaps a bit too much action happening off screen, and a little too many coincidences or startling reverses. And for a book with so many shootings and double crosses, it’s mostly filled with dialogue scenes. But that isn’t a problem because…
The dialogue rules! Oblique, snappy, it crackles back and forth like a gunfight. The rules for writing quality dialogue could have been modled on this novel alone. Characters interrupt, they’re impatient, they lie (and lie again), they argue, they betray. They do a lot of talking. I enjoyed every minute of it.
Characters. Hammett really shines here. The villains are a bit over the top, but I adored them. The sinister (and limp wristed — oh so pre-politically-correct) Cairo, the fatman, the kid. The author uses a combination of amusing descriptive characterization (Gutman’s bulbs of fat — “He waved his palm like a fat pink starfish!” — or Cairo’s effete details — “when slapped he screamed like a woman”) and highly distinctive dialogue. Gutman’s is a real riot. Overblown, threatening and complementary at the same time. Sam himself is an interesting figure. Tough, incredibly competent, but also prideful, belligerent, and self interested.
Atmosphere. This is nailed, nailed cold and hard like a corpse left out in January. It oozes late 20s San Francisco. The dangerous dames, the cartoony gangsters, the police always one step behind. The tension in the way that the backstabbing moxie Brigid uses her feminine wiles eerily foreshadows basic instinct and countless followups.
The book’s been a classic for 80 years, and with good reason.