Ian Tregillis's Reviews > The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
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Oct 15, 10


Okay, let's get the short shameful confession out of the way right off the bat: I've tried to watch the 1941 Humphrey Bogart/Mary Astor/Peter Lorre/John Huston film adaptation of this book twice, and both times I fell asleep. Because I am a philistine. A philistine who was raised by wolves, who were themselves raised by cold, emotionless robots.

I read this 6 or 7 weeks ago, so while my craptacular memory has already lost some of the plot details of this book, I've had some time to stew over my reaction to it.

I picked this up as part of a concerted effort to try to understand, or at least familiarize myself with, American detective fiction from the 20s and 30s. This was my first introduction to Dashiell Hammett's work, and also my first foray into "hard boiled" detective fiction. So it took a while before I felt I could separate Hammett's writing style from the tropes of a nascent genre. Not sure how well I succeeded in that. I'm more interested in the elements and requirements of the genre, than in any particular writer's approach to it.

My overwhelming reaction to the actual craftwork is surprise: for something that was so formative to an entire genre, and lauded as an American classic, and has been adapted to stage and screen multiple times, the writing struck me as... clunky. That may be a failing of my expectations, or a mismatch with my own readerly preferences, or a sign that 80 years have passed since the book was written and tastes have changed. Another reviewer here on GR nailed one of the major issues I had with this book: Hammett writes down ever single detail, whereas a more skillful writer like Raymond Chandler tends to restrict himself to the telling details. The avalanche of inconsequential details became tiresome to me. I'm more interested in Sam Spade's world, its rules and how it must be navigated, than in the precise manner in which he walkeacross a room, lit a cigarette, and opened an envelope.

We never actually know what Spade is feeling, and we only know his thoughts when he vocalizes them. I found this intriguing; Hammett writes in a tightly controlled objective third person, so that we can only judge Spade what he says and does. It's a clever choice that keeps Spade at the same emotional distance from the reader as he is from everybody else around him. Spade adheres rigidly to his own sense of right and wrong, and he's deeply stubborn. This puts him on the outs with almost everybody around him, most especially the police. (This is perhaps de rigueur the genre?)

However, the objective viewpoint combines with the overemphasis on detail in ways that are almost comical. Particularly when it comes to the characters' facial expressions -- Hammett attempts to give us hints at complex character emotion this way, but the result comes off a little overwritten, in my humble opinion.

Spade's is not a particularly high-minded code of honor. After all, he's having an affair with his partner's wife. I'm a fan of the gray protagonist, and Spade is pretty gray. I'm less tolerant of lazy plotting complications that arise simply from characters' unwillingness to talk to one another. And that's the major upshot of Spade's mulishness: the story would be significantly shorter if the characters actually communicated with one another. I'm not saying that it would be better for them to come clean with one another from the outset -- there'd be no story at all, then, and half the fun of reading the story is trying to unravel the intertwined lies and half-truths and swindles and counter-swindles. But I do believe that when characters get into a room together and talk, information of some sort should be exchanged. At least one of the characters should leave the scene with more information on hand (whether true or false is irrelevant) than he or she entered with. When they don't, the lack of communication becomes a pointless complication if the scene doesn't elaborate on the setting and/or develop the characters. Neither of which are strong points of this novel.

Everybody around Spade is characterized to a lesser degree than he. The
women fare worst of all: they're backstabbing sexpots; clingy, codependent embarrassments; or virginal, puppyish sidekicks. Not much subtlety here.

For all that I criticize this book, I did enjoy aspects of it, particularly the dialogue. I don't know how much of it was exaggerated or affected for the purposes of the novel (a fair bit, I'm guessing), but this more than anything else evoked the era for me. I relish the talk of bulls and dames, heaters and iron, saps and gunsels (a word whose true original meaning took me by surprise).

I find it interesting that this book has been adapted to film at least twice. The story speaks to people -- or it did in the 30s and 40s -- in a way that's lost on me personally. But while I read I couldn't help but picture Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade (even though he doesn't look "rather pleasantly like a blonde Satan".)
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Corry (new)

Corry L. I made it through the Humphrey Bogart film, but I'm with you in that it was a struggle. Definitely didn't see the powerful draw in it that I'd expected. I'm curious what it was about this story that launched it above its peers into classicdom.


message 2: by Ian (new) - rated it 2 stars

Ian Tregillis I'm so glad to know I'm not the only one who doesn't love that movie.

I'm curious what it was about this story that launched it above its peers into classicdom.

When you figure it out, please tell me...


Virtuella You're not at all a Philistine. I found this book very boring. I know it's supposed to be "gritty" and "noir" and all that, but does that have to mean tedious?


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