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Common reads > The Maltese Falcon

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message 1: by Werner (last edited Jan 10, 2009 06:15AM) (new)

Werner Since we're discussing The Maltese Falcon as our common read this month, but a lot of people probably haven't had time to read much of it yet, I'll start the ball rolling with a general question. This novel is a classic of the noir school. Not all mystery fiction in the pulps of the classic era was in that mold, but a lot of it was, and many members of this group are big fans of the style. If you are, what are some of the characteristics of this type of literature that specially attract you?

message 2: by Jim, Co-moderator (new)

Jim (jimmaclachlan) | 234 comments Mod
I just received my 'new' copy in the mail yesterday. I have 3 more books in the series I'm currently reading before I'll be able to get to it. Likely 2 weeks before I get to reading it.

message 3: by [deleted user] (new)

Hopefully my copy will arrive from Amazon tomorrow, I hope to start reading it before the week is out (assuming I finsh one or other of the two books I am presently reading)!

message 4: by Jim, Co-moderator (new)

Jim (jimmaclachlan) | 234 comments Mod
I changed my mind. I decided I needed a break from the series I'm on, so I started reading the "Maltese Falcon". I find that most of my memories of it are from the Bogie movie. I'm going to try to get that, too when I'm finished reading it.

It's really good so far, but a lot different than I remember. The description of Sam Spade especially.

message 5: by Adam (new)

Adam | 70 comments Werner, can you define "noir" as it applies to literature? In film noir, the word "noir" describes a visual style (e.g., chiaroscuro, dark shadows, expressionistic sets). When talking about literature, I think that--stylistically, at least--the term "hard boiled" is easier to define, since it refers to a writing style. "Noir" I primarily think of as a visual definition.

message 6: by [deleted user] (new)

Adam - I think Werner is using noir as a somewhat interchnangeable turn. Without getting very boring in history - the French originally used noir to refer to mysteries - the Série noire was a mid-40s to the 60s publisher of fiction in translation in France. They published Hammett, et al. and are most famous for being the first publisher of Chester Himes Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones books. The term film noir originally came from discussing films made of works in the Série noire library... hence The Maltese Falcon as a noir despite its rather flat and non-expressionist filming. It's perhaps not the best term anymore, but it's an easy shorthand. I find myself referring to a lot of 50s harboiled as Gold Medal books, even though they were far from the only publisher at the time...

And now ... I will please to shut up. Ha!

message 7: by Adam (new)

Adam | 70 comments Thanks for all the information, Joe. I love the Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed series, and knew they were first published in France, but I didn't know the publisher.

I'm pretty sure there was a French film adaptation of one of Jim Thompson's novels (possibley Pop. 1280) that was called "Serie Noire." Would that be a sort of generic term in French, the way "Pulp Fiction" is in English?

message 8: by Werner (new)

Werner Adam, I use "noir" --which literally means "darkness" or "blackness" in French (I don't know what connotation it might have in modern French as a literary term; I don't speak the language)-- as a synonym for the "hard-boiled" school in the mystery genre, and I prefer the former term; the latter sounds to me more like a cooking direction for an egg. :-) I'd heard of the use of the term in film criticism (though you're obviously much more knowledgeable in that area than I am) and it's association with dark visual effects; but as I apply it to literature, the darkness is more of a moral, figurative nature.

As I use the word, it connotes crime fiction that's written from a very bleak, dark philosophical and social vision, which views law and order as a very thin veneer overlaying a reality that's essentially amoral and disordered; any attempt to change that state of affairs is viewed as naive and doomed. The main characters in fiction of this stamp tend to be self-seeking, ruthless and devious, and often come across with an all-purpose belligerent, pugnacious attitude. Noir (in this sense) detectives tend to be alienated loners with self-destructive vices, who usually rely more on their gun and their fists, for professional purposes, than on their brains; women are often portrayed as unscrupulous, murderous vixens who use the pretense of romance to manipulate males for nefarious purposes. Besides Hammett, some of the writers I think of as part of this school are Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, and Chester Himes.

My use of the term may be inaccurate and kind of idiosyncratic (I can't recall now ever seeing it defined exactly that way), so I hope this explanation helps! And, of course, I haven't read a lot in this style, so my definition may be jaundiced --but even if it is, maybe it can still serve as a springboard for discussion. And I join in thanking Joekinski for the interesting historical background!

message 9: by Adam (new)

Adam | 70 comments Werner, that explanation helps a great deal!

My short answer to your question about what characteristics of noir fiction appeal to me is that it's a uniquely American style, or at least started out that way. The people who wrote for Black Mask magazine were freeing themselves not only from the bonds of British-style mysteries (cerebral, polite, ornate language, and a focus on detection), they were also freeing themselves from the parochialism of 19th-century literary styles in general.

Personally, I like the term "hard boiled," but no matter how you define it, the terse, unadorned language of novels like The Maltese Falcon is one of the big things I've always liked about the genre.

message 10: by Werner (new)

Werner Adam, your point about noir being a particularly American contribution to the genre, while the more traditional mystery is a British style, is one I've run across before in the writings of various critics. That contrast readily suggests itself in a 1930s context, when the traditional mystery field was dominated by British writers and British settings. And a case could be made that that style reflects the more mannered and ordered British culture, while noir is the natural reflection of the more uncouth, rough-and-tumble American culture.

Actually, though, the traditional mystery genre was itself the brainchild of an American, Edgar Allan Poe, who definitely focused on detection and used language as ornate (or more so) than his Golden Age successors. It was a British writer, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who popularized the genre for English- speaking readers in the next generation, and Doyle's immediate successful imitators were mostly British; but Doyle's Sherlock Holmes owes a lot to Poe's Auguste Dupin, and features of Doyle's style and narrative structure also derive from Poe. (Poe was popular in France, too, and his mystery stories are set there; the early development of a strong mystery genre tradition in French literature probably stems at least partly from Poe's influence, too.) Of course, that doesn't deny the unmistakeably American origins of the noir tradition, as well!

Your mention of the rejection of 19th-century literary styles by the noir writers is insightful. To be more specific, noir can be viewed as a strong example of the triumph of literary Realism (or even Naturalism) in 20th-century fiction, supplanting the Romantic style that prevailed in the 19th century. (Poe certainly wrote in the Romantic style, as did Doyle.) Of course, whether or not the noir view of the world is "realistic" is a matter of opinion; but the writers' intent was certainly to be realistic, they were more interested in realism than in appealing to the reader's emotions, and they didn't write the kind of flowery, verbose prose that was the trademark of the Romantic school. (In the U.S., of course, the supplanting of Romanticism by Realism as the dominant style was already underway after the Civil War; but Realism in general and noir in particular were still, in the 1920s and 30s, the relatively "new" style in historical terms.) And in doing so, in a very real way, they were "freeing themselves" from the dictates of a style that had become a fettering convention, even though it had begun, more than a century before, as a similarly liberating revolt against the fettering conventions of Neoclassicism. I agree that this was a good development, because, in general, rigid literary orthodoxies that inhibit imagination and creativity aren't a healthy matrix for literature. Of course, Realism can in turn become a stifling, rigid orthodoxy of its own; but that's another story!

message 11: by Charles (new)

Charles (kainja) | 30 comments I started The Maltese Falcon yesterday and am enjoying it so far. It's definitely unusual in how it develops the character. Perhaps a fairly early expression of the anti-hero.

message 12: by [deleted user] (last edited Jan 14, 2009 12:38AM) (new)

I started TMF (The Maltese Falcon) on the commute to work this morning. I didn't get far, but am enjoying it immensely!
The short punchy sentences are very stylistic, and I must say I am trying to avoid reading it with a Bogart accent!

message 13: by Jim, Co-moderator (new)

Jim (jimmaclachlan) | 234 comments Mod
I finished the Maltese Falcon yesterday while waiting for my truck. What a great read!

Should we have a topic for discussing it with spoilers? Do we need one?

While most of us have probably seen a movie of it (or 2 or 3) &/or read the book, it had been so long for me that I was eagerly reading to find out what happened next. I vote for a spoiler topic.

message 14: by Adam (last edited Jan 14, 2009 07:45AM) (new)

Adam | 70 comments Werner, your point about whether or not Realism (with a capital R) is "realistic" is well taken. All fiction is mimetic, so the "realism" or "believability" of The Maltese Falcon is of course a subjective judgment.

I'm about 50 pages into the book, and have never read it before. (The only other Hammett book I've read is Red Harvest back in high school.) So far I find it realistic and, to a lesser degree, "believable," as far as these things go in mystery fiction.

At points it almost seems as if Hammett is rediscovering and reclaiming not only the English language but the very nature of descriptive writing. Descriptions of Sam Spade being awakened by the telephone and then getting dressed seem as if they hae been written by an alien observing the human race for the first time:

"A switch clicked and a white bowl hung on three gilded chains from the ceiling's center filled the room with light. Spade, bare-footed in green and white checked pajamas, sat on the side of the bed."

"Spade's thick fingers made a cigarette with deliberate care, sifting a measured quantity of tan flakes down into curved paper, spreading the flakes so that they lay equal at the ends with a slight depression in the middle, thumbs rolling the paper's inner edge down and up under the outer edge as forefingers pressed it over, thumbs and fingers sliding to the paper cylinder's ends to hold it even while tongue licked the flap, left forefinger and thumb pinching their end while right forefinger and thumb smoothed the damp seam, right forefinger and thumb twisting their end and lifting the other to Spade's mouth."

"He scratched the back of his neck and began to dress. He put on a thin white union-suit, grey socks, black garters, and dark brown shoes. When he had fastened his shoes he picked up the telephone, called Graystone 4500, and ordered a taxicab. He put on a green-striped white shirt, a soft white collar, a green necktie, the grey suit he had worn that day, a loose tweed overcoat, and a dark grey hat. The street-door-bell rang as he stuffed tobacco, keys, and money into his pockets."

The reader is not spared a single, quotidian detail of Spade's cigarette-rolling or dressing ritual. On the other hand, the reader can only assume that Spade has emotions or an interior life.

The exhaustive detail, of course, is something that I believe has gone out of favor with hard-boiled crime writers. Elmore Leonard or Donald E. Westlake (R.I.P.) might simply have written, "Spade got out of bed, rolled a cigarette, and called for a cab. He got dressed and left his apartment." But for its time, I think Hammett's writing stands in polar opposition to the Romantic, 19th-century (both English and American) style of storytelling, in which emotion, thought, and the inner lives of characters was emphasized, and what a character was wearing or doing with his or her hands might not even be mentioned.

message 15: by Werner (new)

Werner I'd echo Jim's suggestion of a spoiler thread as part of this discussion. Hammett's solution to the murder, and his resolution of the story's love interest, are definitely things I can see readers wanting to discuss --but first-time readers in the middle of the book would probably appreciate not being in on those conversations.

Adam's comments on the groundbreaking nature of the style are right-on. And you have to give Hammett credit for saying, in effect, "I'm going to write this MY way, regardless of how everybody in the past has been saying you should write!" Anytime you have a dominant convention in literature that's become so formulaic that hack writers can approach it like they were laying bricks, you need some rebels with an original approach, like Hammett, to shake things up and encourage others to be original, too. He earned his laurels for that, whether you happen to like his particular style or not. Other things being equal, I tend to prefer the Romantic school --but the reason it survives as a living tradition today is because modern Romantic writers have been smart enough to learn from Realist writers (like Hammett) and incorporate some Realist techniques into their fiction!

message 16: by Jim, Co-moderator (new)

Jim (jimmaclachlan) | 234 comments Mod
I just finished my short review of it. Like Adam, I noted the descriptions were pretty intense, but there were also things he didn't describe that I expected him to in more detail. Neither the guns nor violence got quite the same amount as they usually do now. I didn't miss it.

I was also surprised by how well the book had weathered the years. I had some vague notion that it had been written in the late 40's or early 50's - probably due to Bogie's movie. When the year is clearly told to us by one character, I glanced at the front of the book to find that it had originally been published in 1929.

message 17: by Werner (new)

Werner Adam's analysis of the opening paragraphs of the book made me remember similar features in other parts of it, and got me to thinking. Do you all think Hammett was influenced by the philosophy of Behaviorism, with its reduction of social science to clinical descriptions of behavior, and its dismissal of everything (like emotions and "interior life," or moral considerations) that's not outwardly observable? After all, literature often tends to reflect intellectual currents in the world around it, and Behaviorist pioneer John B. Watson's ideas had made quite a splash in the world of the 1920s.

message 18: by Adam (new)

Adam | 70 comments That's an interesting idea, Werner.

I think that the advent of the cinema must have played a major influence on the style of this book, too. Hammett wrote this novel in 1929. Cinema was a relatively new artform, but an incredibly popular one, and had been around long enough to make an impact on writers. By the end of the '20s, the majority of films were still silent. Their language was chiefly gestural, and unlike the stage, soliloquies that revealed the characters' inner thoughts were not an option. Silent films told their stories mostly through movement, facial expressions, and physical action.

message 19: by [deleted user] (new)

I started The Maltese Falcon this morning and so far finding it a very easy and entertaining read. I also saw the old movie long ago but don't remember much about it at all. (except maybe the falcon is a smuggled piece of art?) Only on page 58 so far.
Adam, so far the only thing that has struck a false chord with me is the extreme begging she went into to get Sam to help her. But I have to remember she is in lots of trouble and I think 50 years ago it was expected that women sometimes behave in that hysterical manner. (a little overdone to me) My husband watches lots of old movies and often I cannot watch as the sterotypical underlying hysteria of the actresses gets on my nerves. My very favorite author wrote about the same time and I never notice her characters having that type of behavior. They may be very desperate but they never beg that I recall.

message 20: by Jim, Co-moderator (new)

Jim (jimmaclachlan) | 234 comments Mod
I like the 'realism' of the characters & setting the best. OK, there is exageration, but basically the hero is tough, fairly powerful & pretty flawed, but the flaws are ones I can forgive. They're generally loners, but still sociable. They bend most of the little rules, get lots of girls, drink more than is socially acceptable, but when the chips are down, they'll stick to their few principles come hell or high water.

The power is good connections, usually through doing a good turn for someone, not tons of money like Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne. They're a very common kind of people that I can believe, in most ways. They love a little more, get into odd things & are stronger than most, but are believable.

message 21: by [deleted user] (new)

Hi Jim, I also liked flawed characters as they seem real to me. My favorite is Norah Lofts Jassy. Jassy is a very unusual person. Then I like Rupert Hatton another Norah Lofts character who was born to a wicked stepfather but fights to fulfill his destiny to play the violin. At a very young age he even stoops to murder!! I also even like Elizabeth who had to have her blue beads and so a priest was left walled up and died. Well, Norah Lofts characters are very real. Hope you will try one sometime! Let me know if you do!
hooked on them!

message 22: by Jim, Co-moderator (new)

Jim (jimmaclachlan) | 234 comments Mod
Alice, I've never heard of Norah Lofts before. While my To-Be-Read pile is fairly large, I'm always open to a new, good read. Could you suggest one of her books to me, please?

message 23: by Jim, Co-moderator (new)

Jim (jimmaclachlan) | 234 comments Mod
I'm a fairly flawed person, so I guess I can identify with a flawed character better than one who is an extreme of good or bad. Especially if we share many of the same flaws. It's a visceral level of connection. If life had taken a slightly different turn, I could have found myself in a similar situation. It makes it easy to project into the book & take a trip without ever leaving the farm.

In "The Maltese Falcon", I can even identify with Gutmann to a large extent. I like to collect some things. I can understand his quest & greed. I've been looking for some books for almost twice as long as he looked for the falcon. Finding that they were available & finally getting them just before reading this book was a wonderful example for me.

(I just got books 6 & 7 to finish up Philip Jose Farmer's 'World of Tiers' series. Book 5 was published in the late 70's & I searched for another for over a decade, finally decided it was never going to be written & then just a month or so ago found out about the two books that wrapped it all up. I got them & just read all 7!)

message 24: by Jim, Co-moderator (new)

Jim (jimmaclachlan) | 234 comments Mod
Thanks, I put Out of This Nettle on my wish list. If you come up with the other book, please let me know. I use a couple of book swap sites, so it's easy to put them up there & wait.

message 25: by Werner (new)

Werner Jim, I'm not as much of an expert on Lofts as Alice is, since I've only read four of her novels; but I'll throw in my two cents worth, too, in case it will help give you more of a picture of her writing. She was primarily a historical novelist; like Hammett, she often dealt in flawed characters, and immoral and even criminal behavior (which is sometimes undetected and unpunished), but that's really the only similarity. I wouldn't call her a noir or "hard-boiled" writer, or really place her in the mystery genre at all. But I know you like SF, and in one respect, historical fiction is similar: it brings to life a society whose ideas and customs are very alien to ours! And like Hawthorne, she often flavors her fiction with occasional hints and overtones of the supernatural or uncanny. As far as I know, though, The Haunting of Gad's Hall is her only work of strictly supernatural fiction.

BTW, Alice, I thought I was supposed to moderate the discussion of The Town House in March! :-) That's okay, though; I'll be glad to do either (or both) if it helps you out.

message 26: by Jim, Co-moderator (new)

Jim (jimmaclachlan) | 234 comments Mod
Thanks, Werner. I do like historical fiction. I loved John Jakes "Bicentennial Series" & Harold Lamb's books. The latter got me to read Rubaiyat, which is something since I'm not much on poetry. It sounds like Norah Lofts could be an interesting read.

message 27: by [deleted user] (new)

Oh, my mistake Werner! Well, Carol is wanting to do The Haunting of Gad's Hall right away and also just got The Town House. sigh, my memory is getting worse! sorry! Keep reminding me!
Norah Lofts also wrote The Claw which is really creepy but if I remember right its about real crime. No one on the list much likes it as too scary for us. She also wrote under the pen names of Peter Curtis and Juliet Astley or something like that. I haven't read those.
Jim, will you be reading Ghost Story with us? I wish I knew which one would be best for you to start with but its so hard to say.
I read about 100 more pages on The Maltese Falcon today. I am sure wondering about that ship - La Paloma? What caused the fire?

message 28: by Werner (new)

Werner I checked back over the past posts on the threads that touch on The Maltese Falcon and found that nobody mentioned this yet, so I will: there's now a prequel to the original novel, published this year by Knopf. It's Spade and Archer by Joe Gores, a Hammett enthusiast (and Edgar Award-winning mystery writer), and it has the endorsement of the Hammett estate. While I haven't read it, I know that it got very good reviews in Library Journal and Booklist, and is supposed to reflect Hammett's own style quite well. So, some of you fans of the original may want to check this out!

message 29: by Adam (new)

Adam | 70 comments Sounds interesting, Werner. Thanks for the heads-up!

This is the first I've heard of this. Prequels and sequels written decades later by other authors are tricky. But I'd at least be willing to give this one a try...

message 30: by Werner (new)

Werner Adam, if you do try it, let us know how you like it!

message 31: by Steven (new)

Steven Harbin (stevenharbin) | 86 comments Mod
I saw this one in my local bookstore. It's on my "to (eventually) read" list. I have read some of Joe Gore's work before and he's generally very good, plus he's a bit of a Dashiell Hammett student, so I'm hoping it will be good...

message 32: by Mohammed (new)

Mohammed  (mohammedaosman) | 70 comments I got from the library The Continental Op and The Thin Man by Hammeth since i havent read him before. Which of the books are seen as better ?

Off Topic but i wanted to see how good Hammett was before reading The Maltese Falcon,The Red Harvest.

message 33: by Jim, Co-moderator (new)

Jim (jimmaclachlan) | 234 comments Mod
I think "The Thin Man" is a sequel to "The Maltese Falcon", but is fine as a stand alone, too. I haven't read "The Continental Op".

message 34: by Mohammed (last edited May 07, 2009 04:46AM) (new)

Mohammed  (mohammedaosman) | 70 comments Oh its a sequal i didnt know that.

I was interested in it cause my favorite crime writer Donald Westlake said it was the book that influenced him most as a writer. That he was so impressed by how Hammett wrote it.

Then i can cancel the preorder of it.

I use library book to try out authors anyway. If i like The Continental OP i will buy new paperbacks of Maltese Falcon,Thin Man.

Have you read James M Cain ? I was thinking about maybe we should read or him somthing next time its a pulp Noir writer.

message 35: by Jim, Co-moderator (new)

Jim (jimmaclachlan) | 234 comments Mod
No, I'm wrong, it isn't a sequel. Nick Charles, not Sam Spade as the hero.

No, I haven't read James McCain, that I know of.

message 36: by Dan (new)

Dan Schwent (akagunslinger) I've read The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, Double Indemnity in the last couple months. Both are pretty slim but gripping with sparse but powerful prose.

message 37: by Mohammed (new)

Mohammed  (mohammedaosman) | 70 comments I have Double Indemnity, read little of it. Saving for a crime binge. Yeah his prose is sparse,powerful. He is very the literal ancestor of Jim Thompson. The Roman Noir thing,writing style,criminal,twisted characters.

message 38: by Adam (new)

Adam | 70 comments I love James M. Cain. Of the novels that I've read, I like Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce the best (although the latter is not crime fiction). The Postman Always Rings Twice is a close second. Serenade was good ... interesting, if nothing else, for its treatment of homosexuality. Love's Lovely Counterfeit is also really good. My memories of it are that it's somewhat similar to Hammett's Red Harvest in its treatment of a small Midwestern town awash in gangsters.

message 39: by Mohammed (last edited May 11, 2009 03:43AM) (new)

Mohammed  (mohammedaosman) | 70 comments I have read and enjoyed alot the first 4 stories of the 7 short stories of Continental OP collection. He is really the opposite of the heroic good looking PI Noir hero. I must read Red Harvest aftewards.

Funny i didnt like the writing of early Maltese Falcon when i tried it and Hammett for the first time last year. Continental OP is very lean,sparse,one of the best first person crime books i have read. I like how its not so melodramatic like Chandler's Marlowe stories who falls for the beautiful dames he meets in a case.

The OP doesnt even think about anything but the job. Now i understand why The Continental OP is so famous.

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