J.G. Keely's Reviews > The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
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's review
Jul 31, 2009

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bookshelves: mystery, novel, crime, reviewed, america, noir
Read in August, 2009

Despite his small output, Hammett's influence on books is considerable: fast-paced plots wrapped tightly around eccentric characters and tacked up with idiomatic quips. Hammet is capable of drawing the reader in with tone and wit, but then his golden threads unravel.

As often as his simplicity achieves elegance, it can equally grow cumbersome and repetitive. His unpolished tone has a great deal of charm, but to write simply is harder than it seems. For the simple plot to become tight-laced, it must be built from the individual sentences: from declarations, quick turns, and unfettered progression.

In such a stripped and simple work, anything superfluous (or sloppy) immediately breaks the flow. A grandiose and overwrought work can get away with more than a tight, simple story, It's hard for even numerous errors to overwhelm a sprawling, confusing, melodramatic story (which goes a long way to explain the NYT bestsellers).

Derailing a trim, direct plot is much easier. Hammett needs a ruthless editor to excise pointless adjectives, restatements, and to streamline the interplay of dialogue.

Hammett's effect on books is small compared to his effect on film, because most of us would rather watch a movie than read its screenplay. Hammet starts with setting, moves to wardrobe, then lines and stage direction. He doesn't take advantage of the ability of the written word to set pace, to work minutely and in congress, and to provide a unified, unbroken voice.

Like many pulps, reading Hammett is like watching a movie, but the fault of many pulp authors is that they often leave their readers with the job of direction and cinematography. The problem is that when the author gives up creative duties to the reader, he is giving up part of his authorship, and is not taking full advantage of the written word and its ability to direct and define a world from structure to sound to tone to style.

The vision that Hammett creates is intriguing and clearly infectious, its influence can be seen in film, television, comic books, &c.; but while many seminal works outperform their imitators (Petrarch, Tolkien, Collins, Wister) Hammett is the innovator but not the master of the style.
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