Regular visitors to this site know that I am not a huge fan of hard (or even medium) boiled P.I. mysteries. Here's a significant exception: I love Dashiell Hammett's classic Sam Spade mystery, The Maltese Falcon, both in its original format as a book and also in its classic film incarnation. My podcast, edited from the original posted more than nine years ago, will explain why I'm so eager to share the book with you.
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“Well, now, the Emperor Charles has given them Malta, and all the rent he asks is one insignificant bird per annum, just as a matter of form. What could be more natural than for these immeasurably wealthy Knights to look around for some way of expressing their gratitude? Well, sir, that’s exactly what they did, and they hit on the happy thought of sending Charles for the first year’s tribute, not an insignificant live bird, but a glorious golden falcon encrusted from head to foot with the finest jewels in their coffers.”
That’s the description of the black bird – The Maltese Falcon – a classic American mystery by Dashiell Hammett.
Hammett was not only a good mystery writer, he was a fine author, and I think his 1930 novel, The Maltese Falcon, may have been his finest creation. According to Wikipedia, it was the only novel to feature his detective character, Sam Spade, although Spade does appear in a few short stories as well. Spade is tough, cynical, operating on some obscure and very personal moral code. The setting is San Francisco. The streets are mean, and some of the characters even meaner.
The plot revolves around the fabulous “black bird,” the Maltese Falcon. There are four murders in the course of the book, all tied in with the search for the falcon. It’s not really a “puzzle” mystery – the reader is generally left to sort it out, along with Sam Spade, as he tries to figure out what has happened and what to do next.
But the story comes alive through its characters! There is Spade himself, the tough private eye following his own private code of morality. There is a young woman named Brigid O’Shaughnessy, beautiful, unpredictable, perhaps very dangerous. There is the effeminate Joel Cairo, whose allegiances are not always clear. There is a sinister and very fat man who appears to be the spider at the center of this web of intrigue. There is the fat man’s henchman, a young gunman named Wilmer. There is Spade’s secretary, Effie Perrine, whose relationship with Spade may be more than a straightforward boss-and-secretary thing. There is Spade’s partner, Miles Archer – an early victim – and Archer’s widow, who has been having an affair with Spade. Most of these characters may be treacherous, prepared to switch sides at a moment’s notice – that is, if you can even figure out which “sides” exist. For much of the novel, it’s hard to tell who may be working with whom – and against whom. Add to the mix a couple of San Francisco cops, trying to sort it all out, maybe by pinning everything on Spade. Eventually it does all get sorted out, leading to a characteristically dark ending.
The dialogue alone is worth the price of the book. Here’s a brief sample. It comes from Spade’s first meeting with Kasper Gutman – the fat man at the center of the plot. Gutman pours a drink for Spade. Here’s part of the exchange:
“We begin well, sir,” the fat man purred, turning with a proffered glass in his hand. “I distrust a man that says when. If he’s got to be careful not to drink too much it’s because he’s not to be trusted when he does.
Spade took the glass, and, smiling, made the beginning of a bow over it...
The fat man looked shrewdly at Spade and asked: “You’re a close-mouthed man?”
Spade shook his head. “I like to talk.”
“Better and better!” the fat man exclaimed. I distrust a close-mouthed man. He generally picks the wrong time to talk and says the wrong things. Talking’s something you can’t do judiciously unless you keep in practice.” He beamed over his glass. “We’ll get along, sir, that we will.”
Now that exchange turns out to be a fairly good insight into the fat man’s character. Cold-blooded, ruthless, his polite comments on the surface seem quite friendly – which merely adds to the menace overall.
If you haven’t seen the 1941 movie that was made from The Maltese Falcon, do yourself a favor and get that movie. It was directed by John Huston, who also wrote the screenplay, and virtually all the dialogue comes directly from the novel. The casting was superb, drawn from the finest character actors available at the time: Humphrey Bogart as Spade, Mary Astor as Brigid, Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, Sidney Greenstreet imparting just the right air of menacing jocularity to the sinister fat man, Elisha Cook, Jr., as Wilmer, the fat man’s dangerous henchman. Having seen the movie, it’s hard not to hear their voices as you read the dialogue in the book.
The Maltese Falcon was an influence on a great many other writers, and the hardboiled Sam Spade was a model for other characters as well. It’s a wonderful mystery and a delight to read. Both the book and the movie are readily available. If you haven’t read it, or seen it, do yourself a favor and get both versions.
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To listen to the original podcast, click here.
Next week: Police at the Funeral, by Margery Allingham