Within minutes of beginning The Maltese Falcon I was struck by how archetypal film noir this book is. I couldn’t help but picture it all happening in black and white. The cold detached narrative, the breathless female characters; the roguish lead detective figure of Sam Spade, the whole book could have been a story within Sin City. Whilst today this is a format we are familiar it is important to remember that Dashiell Hammett’s novel is consider a first of its kind, this is the book that created that genre.
Set in the hilly, windy city of San Francisco in the lat2 1920s, Private detectives Sam Spade and Miles Archer are hired by a young woman to follow a man, Thursby, who has allegedly run off with her sister. That night Archer is found dead, killed by a single gunshot. Later that night Spade is visited by two police officers who report that Thursby has also been killed and Spade is currently their prime suspect – motivation revenge. Visiting his client Spade learns that there is no sister and she is caught up in a complicated situation centred on a figurine of a black bird. Over the subsequent days others arrive on the scene making a claim to the black bird and Spade finds himself tricked, lied to and used as the seductive Miss O’Shaunghnessy, wimpy Joel Cairo and the wealthy cunning Casper Gutman fight it out. Who will come out triumphant, why so much fuss over a black bird and who did kill Miles Archer?
I struggled with this book. The writing is now so stereotypical of the trench coat 1940s detective novels that it felt mimicked and I had to keep reminding myself of the age of the book.
The portrayal of women in the book is frustrating; regardless of their independence and resourcefulness we find all of them hooked on our leading man Spade ready to batter their eyelashes at the slightest hint of attention.
The leading lady is Brigid O’Shaughnessy. She is seductive and mysterious knowing exactly how to get Spade to do her bidding. Such a competent show artist even other women fall foul of her performance, Spade’s secretary is quite confident throughout the book that she is the real deal and victim of the plot. Miss O’Shaughnessy is without a doubt the classic femme fatale. Our femme is balanced in the book and in Spade’s life by his ever ready down-to-earth, previously mentioned, secretary Effie Perine. This is a girl with gumption, always ready to help Spade. Whilst there is small element of flirtation and a question mark hanging over the pair she is in fact the only woman with whom he has a healthy and honest relationship with. The most frustrating female in the book is without a doubt Iva Miles, the wife of Spade’s partner, and Spade’s lover. She comes across throughout the book as needy, clingy and jealous; a dangerous combination when your lover is so easily distracted by a pretty face.
Our leading ladies are not portrayed in particularly positive lights with all of them demonstrating a weakness for the main man. For him, I’m inclined to say the ladies are interchangeable, he constantly keeps the women grouped together referring to them by impersonal names like darling. Is there a place in his life for any one woman?
Struggling with the writing style and frustrated by the female characters, what kept me reading? The Maltese Falcon at its heart is a good story, filled with lies and deceit, greed, violence and loyalty it could be mistaken for a Shakespeare play!
Sam Spade is a difficult character to like and yet I did feel compelled to stick with him and find out how the whole twisted situation was going to play out. Hammett does well to create suspense but the quite straightforward writing and narrator point of view makes this a quick and easy read. Hammett doesn’t get caught up inside the heads of his characters, keeping them at arm’s reach keeps us as observers not participants.
I know from other reviews there are different feelings on the ending. Without giving anything away I was kept guessing until the very last page and that’s a good thing in a crime novel. We start with a dark mysterious protagonist and well…we end in the same place not really knowing him any better, it couldn’t be better summed up than with a quote from the main man himself “You’ll never understand me,”.