Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

When Sam Spade appears on the first pages of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, he’s depicted as not a very nice character. Hammett makes a reference to Satan, which carries through the book. Strange, that one of the most iconic and celebrated characters in private eye literature (or even throughout all of crime literature) starts as someone compared to the most evil force imaginable. After we get past that little jarring start, the book rips ahead as a fast-paced, strong example of what crime writing should be. It is a well-written, entertaining book that holds the audience’s attention from start to finish (with only a little lag in the middle…not really a lag, but more of a slowdown from the fanatic pace). Hammett’s Spade is a brutal, harsh man who does not mince words. When he encounters Miss Wonderly (who turns out to be Brigid O'Shaughnessy) at the beginning of the novel, even though he is trying to be on his best behavior, there is a brashness about the way he treats her. Maybe he knows she is up to know good…which, of course, she is. She turns out to be the femme fatale of the story and a woman who rattles Spade more than he would care to admit. In addition to O'Shaughnessy, Spade gets caught up with a series of lowlifes and other progressively shady characters as he investigates his partner’s murder. Would this book get published today…? Well, maybe by a small, artsy press that specializes in producing quality literary books more than in making money. Why? Well, The Maltese Falcon is not super violent. There is very little harsh language. There is even less sex. It is like a high-class version of what we consider crime fiction today. Does that make it bad? Of course not…on the contrary…it should make you want to read it all the more.