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The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

The Maltese Falcon (original 1930; edition 2011)

by Dashiell Hammett

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Dashiell Hammett

The Maltese Falcon

Thinking, Paperback, 2011.

8vo. 197 pp.

First published, 1929.


Spade & Archer
Death in the Fog
Three Women
The Black Bird
The Levantine
The Undersized Shadow
G in the Air
Horse Feathers
The Belvedere Divan
The Fat Man
The Emperor's Gift
La Paloma
Every Crackpot
The Third Murder
Saturday Night
The Fall Guy
The Russian's Hand
If They Hang You


First, a piece of priceless advice. Don't buy this edition! It is worth neither the $11 nor the £7 boldly printed on the front cover itself. The quantity of typos is quite abnormal and very annoying. ''Thanks a hot'', indeed!

Second, be aware that the following review is full of spoilers (including the movie).

The Maltese Falcon (1929) was my second venture, after Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep (1939), into the realm of the hard-boiled detective classics. Both readings were stimulated mostly by my seeing the classic movies with Humphrey Bogart, made in 1941 and 1946 respectively, whose portrayals of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe have become the stuff that legends are made of. Yet both readings were also sufficiently exciting to generate further exploration of the genre.

For a number of reasons I have enjoyed Hammett's novel more than Chandler's. Which is indeed surprising as The Maltese Falcon is much closer to its movie version and I was much better prepared for it. To put the matter briefly, Hammett's writing, though every bit as detailed as Chandler's (occasionally even more so!), is more accomplished, more atmospheric, and more compelling; his dialogue is superior, his handling of the female characters more convincing. Sam Spade himself is, for my part, a more realistic and more intriguing a character than Philip Marlowe. This is partly because he is not almost impossibly honest, partly because his relationships with women make him more human, and partly because he is a tougher guy with quicker and more sarcastic tongue.

It is a tribute to Hammett's powerful writing that he made me forget completely both the looks and the voice of Humphrey Bogart. Sam Spade is an altogether different character, with his own distinctive looks (''like a blond Satan'') and his own voice (''Shoo her in, darling'', though Bogie imitated this rather nicely). It's interesting that Hammett, writing in the third person unlike Chandler, almost never mentions the mental state of his characters. This includes Sam as well, even though the whole novel is told through his eyes and there is not a single page in which he does not appear. However, Hammett's ability to describe physical appearances, voices and facial expressions is matchless. A number of phrases (e.g. ''hazel eyes' gaze'') stuck into the mind, giving so vivid an impression that even the screen can seldom match. Consider several random examples:

He stood beside the fireplace and looked at her with eyes that studied, weighed, judged her without pretense that they were not studying, weighing, judging her. She flushed slightly under the frankness of his scrutiny, but she seemed more sure of herself than before, though a becoming shyness had not left her eyes. He stood there until it seemed plain that he meant to ignore her invitation to sit beside her, and then crossed to the settee.

The fat man was flabbily fat with bulbous pink cheeks and lips and chins and neck, with a great soft egg of a belly that was all his torso, and pendant cones for arms and legs. As he advanced to meet Spade all his bulbs rose and shook and fell separately with each step, in the manner of clustered soap-bubbles not yet released from the pipe through which they had been blown. His eyes, made small by fat puffs around, were dark and sleek.

His voice was a throaty purr

His forehead was bandaged. His clothes had the limp unfreshness of too many hours' consecutive wear. His face was pasty, with sagging mouth and eyelids.

Similarly descriptive passages also work marvellously conveying the atmosphere of the surroundings:

The tappity-tap-tap and the thin bell and muffled whir of Effie Perine's typewriting came through the closed door. Somewhere in the neighboring office a power-driven machine vibrated dully. On Spade's desk a limp cigarette smoldered in a brass tray filled with the remains of limp cigarettes. Ragged grey flakes of cigarette-ash dotted the yellow top of the desk and the green blotter and the papers that were there. A buff-curtained window, eight or ten inches open, let in from the court a current of air faintly scented with ammonia. The ashes on the desk twitched and crawled in the current.

Simple, straightforward, direct writing, almost as if you're reading a scientific article, yet oddly compelling. It is only seldom that clumsiness and pretentiousness, plus more repetition of the same words than necessary, mar Hammett's otherwise impeccable and evocative style, as in this case:

The indelible youngness of his face gave an indescribably vicious - and inhuman - turn to the while-hot hatred and the cold white malevolence in his face.

You might just as well have left this ''indescribable'' stuff without description, Dashiell. But it's no big deal.

Perhaps the best thing about Hammett's writing is that all conclusions about his characters, so alive yet so elusive, is entirely left to the imagination of the reader. All you get are hints: spoken words, facial expressions, voices, body language. The difference between appearance and reality is up to you to tell. Now this is something I appreciate very highly. It's also something that creates a sinister atmosphere, much more ''noir'' than in the movie, which fits the story to perfection.

Contrasting with this scarcity of feelings, there is an overwhelming abundance of detail, not just about the exterior of the characters and the surroundings, but also about the action. I do think this is a mistake and a writer is unwise to burden his prose with half-page long descriptions of a newspaper's contents or an apartment’s search. Yet again Hammett passes the test with flying colours. He has a way of stringing words in a most intoxicating manner. Prolixity I would not normally tolerate is here turned into a very exciting piece of fiction. Spade's knocking off Cairo would give an excellent idea how an excessive detail in an action scene, of all places, can work surprisingly well:

Spade by means of his grip of the Levantine's lapels turned slowly and pushed him back until he was standing close in front of the chair he had lately occupied. A puzzled look replaced the look of pain in the lean-colored face. Then Spade smiled. His smile was gentle, even dreamy. His right shoulder raised a few inches. His bent right arm was driven up by the shoulder's lift. Fist, wrist, forearm, crooked elbow, and upper arm seemed all one rigid piece, with only the limber shoulder giving them motion. The fist struck Cairo's face, covering for a moment one side of his chin, a corner of his mouth, and most of his cheek between cheek-bone and jaw-bone.

How much more attractive than ''he punched him in the jaw''!

Considering the spiritual reticence of the narrative, it is instructive to note how Sam Spade is described by the other characters. Their words paint a fascinating portrait. His lawyer, aptly named ''Wise'', is pleasantly blunt and quite accurate: ''You're a son of a gun, Sammy''. His secretary, Effie Perine, is very perceptive: ''you're the most contemptible man God ever made when you want to be''. It's also revealing to know what Sam's – ahem – business partners think. Joel Cairo observes with his frigid formality: ''You have always, I must say, a smooth explanation ready''. The fat, jovial and loquacious Gutman hits the nail on the head with ''You're a character'' and, even more so, with ''Well, sir, frankly I'd like to have you along. You're man to my liking, a man of many resources and nice judgment.''

So this is Sam Spade, a man who looks for ''a reasonable amount of trouble'', but there is also a great deal of trouble that's looking for him. Unlike Marlowe, he is not ''nauseated by women'', but rather on the contrary. He takes them as they come, has as much fun as possible, and moves along. Even though he is not quite as honest and full of virtues as Marlowe, Spade is by no means your ordinary crook without scruples. Far from it. Indeed, he is always ready, much like Marlowe, to get into serious trouble with the police or with the DA in order to protect his clients. What he is not ready to do is to ''play the sap'' – for anybody. He can be cool, detached and inscrutable when dealing with dangerous subjects or situations; note, especially, his handling of ''The Third Murder'' that came out of the blue. He can also be impatient, peevish and irritable when crossed, made a fool of, or punched in the face without a chance to hit back, as amply demonstrated with Brigid, Dundy and the DA, to take but three examples. Altogether, Sam Spade is a surprisingly realistic, coherent and likable character. The last characteristic is a matter of taste, but the other two can only come from a consummate writer.

The plot is every bit as captivating as the protagonist, which means it's nearly perfect. The only slight blemish on it is the episode with Gutman's drugged daughter. It is unnecessary and it is dull. That's the only place in the whole novel in which she appears and it doesn't make much sense. No matter. The rest is brilliantly done, very close to the movie yet far more detailed and, just like The Big Sleep, much easier to understand and follow. If not from the first chapter, at any rate from the second I was set on the edge of my chair and there was no relaxation for the next 180 pages or so. It takes a lot to achieve that with somebody, like me, for whom the plot holds virtually no surprises, nor the dialogue many new lines. The novel adroitly avoids anti-climax. Hammett has a surprise or two in his sleeve until the very end.

Spade's relationships with the ''Three Women'' is a story in itself. In addition to the efficient Effie and the alluring Brigid, there is also the mentally unstable Iva, the wife of Archer, Sam's partner. Spade has all right vocabulary - ''precious'', ''angel'', ''honey'' - and he handles the ladies expertly. Or does he? One of the greatest glories of the book, thankfully retained in the movie, is the magnificently un-sentimental ending. Sam ''won't play the sap'' for Brigid and she is ''taking the fall''. Just then, when the male reader becomes complacent about his resistance to the power of the gentle sex, comes the final page - and it packs quite a punch. In but a few lines the other two women in Sam's life made him ''pale as his collar'' and ''shiver''. It's a superb ending, no doubt satisfying the ladies and leaving us, the men, contemplating disquieting thoughts. Yet another fine thing about Hammett is that he is not as sexist as you might expect.

The screenplay of the classic movie with Humphrey Bogart was apparently ripped off complete from the novel. There had to be many cuts, of course, but pretty much the complete dialogue was kept virtually intact. This includes many great lines that have become legendary thanks to Bogie's inimitable performance. Well, they ''sound'' just as fine in the novel. Here are some particular favourites, almost exclusively coming from Sam's mouth, which are to be found almost verbatim in the movie. The list is by no means complete.

I don't mind a reasonable amount of trouble.

Everybody has something to conceal.

People lose teeth talking like that.
[…] If you want to hang around, you'll be polite.

Don't be too sure I'm as crooked as I'm supposed to be.

You don't have to trust me as long as you can persuade me to trust you.

We didn't exactly believe your story.

We believed your two hundred dollars.
I mean that you paid us more than if you'd been telling us the truth […] and enough more to make it all right.

If you kill me, how are you going to get the bird? If I know you can't afford to kill me till you have it, how are you going to scare me into giving it to you?

[Cairo:] You have always, I must say, a smooth explanation ready.
[Spade:] What do you want me to do? Learn to stutter?

''Mr. Archer was so – so alive yesterday afternoon, so solid and hearty and – ''
''Stop it,'' Spade commanded. ''He knew what he was doing. They're the chances we take.
''Was – was he married?
''Yes, with ten thousand insurance, no children, and a wife who didn't like him.''

You won't need much of anybody's help. You're good. You're very good. It's chiefly your eyes, I think, and that throb you get into your voice when you say things like 'Be generous, Mr. Spade.'''

I hope to Christ they don't hang you, precious, by that sweet neck.
If they hang you I'll always remember you.

[Mocking Iva's ''bright idea'' that he might have killed her husband:]
You killed my husband, Sam, be kind to me.

[Brigid's best offer to Sam, unfortunately but expectedly missing from the movie.]
Can I buy you with my body?

[Gutman's charming explanation why Wilmer is going to be a ''fall guy'':]
- if you lose a son it's possible to get another – and there's only one Maltese Falcon.

[Wilmer's longest and most complex sentence in the novel:]
Keep on riding me and you're going to be picking iron out of your navel.

[Sam's playing dangerous games with the DA:]
Then again, you and the police have both accused me of being mixed up in the other night's murders. I've had trouble with both of you before. As far as I can see, my best chance of clearing myself of the trouble you're trying to make for me is by bringing in the murderers – all tied up. And my only chance of ever catching them and tying them up and bringing them in is by keeping away from you and the police, because neither of you shows any signs of knowing what the hell it's all about.
Now if you want to go to the Board and tell them I'm obstructing justice and ask them to revoke my license, hop to it. You've tried it before and it didn't get you anything but a good laugh all around.
And I don't want any more of these informal talks. I've got nothing to tell you or the police and I'm Goddamned tired of being called things by every crackpot on the city payroll. If you want to see me, pinch me or subpoena me or something and I'll come down with my lawyer.

[And from Sam's stupendous final speech to Brigid:]
Listen. This isn't a damned bit of good. You'll never understand me, but I'll try once more and then we'll give it up. Listen. When a man's partner is killed he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it's bad business to let the killer get away with it, bad all around, bad for every detective everywhere.


Next, I've no reason in God's world to think I can trust you and if I did this and got away with it you'd have something on me that you could use wherever you happened to want to. That's five of them. The sixth would be that, since I've got something on you, I couldn't be sure you wouldn't decide to shoot a hole in me some day. […] All those on one side. Maybe some of them are unimportant. I won't argue about that. But look at the number of them. Now on the other side we've got what? All we've got is the fact that maybe you love me and maybe I love you.

It's a tremendous speech that cannot but make one feel admiration for Spade. The book considerably improves on the movie by having him ruminating, in broken and halting phrases, on the fleeting nature of love: the most important factor why one shouldn't take it very seriously. It would benefit the world to have some of Sam's common sense. He seems to be one of those rare individuals who can, at least to a large degree, separate their reason from their passion. Or is he?

It's easy enough to be nuts about you. […] But I don't know what that amounts to. Does anybody ever? But suppose I do? What of it? Maybe next month I won't. I've been through it before – when it lasted that long. Then what? Then I'll think I played the sap. And if I did it and got sent over then I'd be sure I was the sap. Well, if I sent you over I'll be sorry as hell – I'll have some rotten nights – but that'll pass.

Ironically, one of the most famous (mis)quotations in the movie – the Shakespeare-inspired ''the stuff the dreams are made of'' – is not in the novel. But it is a perfect description of the Maltese Falcon anyway. Also, I must say I was delighted to improve my collection of slang expressions and colloquialisms. Unforgettable examples include ''talk turkey'' (talk seriously) and ''horse feathers'' (nonsense). Now that's the stuff the natural dialogue is made of.

As far as the movie on the whole is concerned, for my part it is worth watching mostly for Humphrey Bogart. He has little to do with Sam Spade from the pages, at least physically, but he is entirely convincing on his own and by no means less fascinating. Peter Lorre as Cairo and Sidney Greenstreet as Gutman (both with small parts in Casablanca as well) do an excellent job as the bad guys, but they are hardly as compelling as their corresponding characters in the novel. Nevertheless, they look perfect – Lorre like a Hungarian gypsy, Greenstreet like Churchill – and they sound perfect: Cairo exceedingly polite; Gutman hearty and sly.

The greatest disappointments are the wooden Mary Astor as Brigid and the guy (whatever his name was) who plays Wilmer. The latter comes off a sinister fellow under Hammett's pen, but in the movie he is rather comic; this is not quite inappropriate, perhaps, as Spade constantly makes fun of him. As for Mary Astor, I wonder who chose her for a role she neither looks right for nor has the capacity to play. Say, Rita Hayworth or Olivia de Havilland would have made a much better job as a femme fatale. Vivien Leigh would have been just awesome. Let's assume that contractual obligations got in the way.

Anyway, it's a fine movie, at least for Bogie's performance and John Huston's masterful direction (note the four close-ups when Wilmer ''woke up'' as a fall guy). The greatest credit, however, goes to Dashiell Hammett for providing a terrific extended screenplay in the form of novel. It fully lives up to its classical status in the genre. I'll be reading him again. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Apr 23, 2012 |
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This mystery novel, generally considered to be Dashiell Hammett's finest work, appeared in serial form in Black Mask magazine in 1929 and was published as a novel the following year. Some critics have said that the Biblical invocation "The love of money is the root of all evil" sums up Falcon's theme.
Detective Sam Spade's partner Archer is hot on a case, and as his partner, Spade must find the killer. The investigation becomes enmeshed ( )
  Tutter | Feb 27, 2015 |
A true classic, one of the great early novels of the hard-boiled American gumshoe, I was reminded while reading it of the apocryphal story of the English student who complained while first reading Shakespeare, "It's full of cliches!" If the style here seems cliched, it's because Hammett set the style. The Bogart movie, of course, had long been a favorite of mine, but Hammett's descriptions are textured enough that I was soon picturing Sam Spade as described by Hammett, not as he appeared on the silver screen. Actually, the events and most of the great lines of the book and movie are remarkably true to each other, with the exception of that great closing line uttered by Bogart in the movie (if you've seen it, you know the line). Also, in the book, Joel Cairo and Wilmer are lovers, which was apparently too daring for the movie audiences of the time. I'm surprised it was handled so matter-of-factly in the novel. ( )
  burnit99 | Jan 27, 2015 |
I bought this book at Goodwill a few years ago and it has wallowed in my massive to-read pile. I had seen the movie but some twenty years ago and didn't remember anything specific.

I've only read noir fiction in its modern urban fantasy form, so it was enlightening to read a classic. It surprised me. First of all, it's a fast read and a short book--about 200 pages. It's a thriller in the purest sense, with constant action and deft twists and turns. I pride myself on predicting what will happen in most books, but here, I was constantly surprised. It is very much a book of its time period. Sam Spade is a macho man if ever there was one. There's sex and adultery--I didn't expect that raciness--and some clever dialogue that alludes to the f-word.

The dialogue is what really makes this. Going beyond Sam's noir schtick, the dialogue sounds REAL (and maybe in the '30s, before it became such a trope, his dialogue had more truth as well). This came across to me last night when I pulled up some movie clips on You Tube. The Humphrey Bogart picture is very loyal to the book, down to exact dialogue. It works phenomenally well.

I'm glad to have read the book. It has a BookCrossing.com label in it, and I intend to return the book to Goodwill so its journey can continue. ( )
  ladycato | Jan 24, 2015 |
Beautiful copy of seminal hard-boiled detective story, with period illustrations and endmaps. ( )
  unclebob53703 | Jan 24, 2015 |
A second read, this time for a book group. More fun than I remembered, and with that snappy pulp style that suited Humphrey Bogart so well. It seemed as though the book could have been created with the movie stars in mind - Sydney Greenstreet as Gutman, Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, Elisha Cook Jr. as "the gunsel." A fairly silly plot by today's standards, but read it for the dialogue and the creation of the "noir" stereotypes we all have come to love through Hollywood's portrayals - the sad but outwardly tough private eye, the thick cops, the duplicitous, seductive dame, the true-blue Gal Friday and on and on. Non-PC in its depiction of homosexuals and women, so buyer beware!
  kishields | Nov 23, 2014 |
While I’m familiar with film noir, this is, I think, the first crime story I’ve read that can be called noir. Of course this title is much better known as the film, but I can see how Dashiell Hammett won such praise for his writing. He allows the personality of his protagonist, Sam Spade, to emerge through what he says and does, rarely if ever giving his thoughts, restricting himself to describing Sade’s facial expressions which are often a disguise for what’s really going on his mind. I think this is effective characterisation even if Spade is not someone to like.

What else works well is the way Hammett keeps pushing the plot forwards as you’d want in this type of fiction – the reader has to keep up and this makes it more interesting. As you’d expect there are attitudes that today are considered if not unfortunate, then at least politically incorrect, such as using Cairo’s homosexuality to denigrate him, but this could be attributed to the way Hammett leads the reader to descry aspects of Spade’s character, including the way he was having an affair, loveless on his behalf, with his partner’s wife.

For a novel so rooted in its time and popular culture, this book has stood the test of time well even though I wouldn’t want to read many like it. ( )
1 vote evening | Oct 31, 2014 |
Very good on re-read. Clear lines, succinct dialogue. Knight in rusty armor does the right thing in spite of himself. ( )
  AliceAnna | Oct 22, 2014 |
I really enjoyed reading Dashiell Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon." I had already seen the movie so the plot wasn't exactly a surprise-- but the overall tone and pacing of the book that it is fun to read.

Detective Sam Spade is in his office when the pretty Miss Wonderly comes marching in with a problem that needs solving. Spade's partner ends up dead and he becomes mixed up with criminals on the hunt for the mysterious falcon.

This is the novel that was responsible for launching the era of the hard-boiled detective, whose eye for detail helps him solve crimes and have his way with the ladies. I can see why others took the idea and ran with it -- this novel is really great. ( )
1 vote amerynth | Oct 19, 2014 |
Hardboiled San Francisco detective Sam Spade is approached by a mysterious female who asks him to find her sister, which instead turns into the hunt for a valuable statue. I saw the 1941 movie in college as an illustration of noir film and an example of MacGuffin usage and while I am a fan of the film (let's be honest, Bogart could do magic), the book falls a short for me, mainly because I don't like Spade and I think that's a prerequisite if you want to "get" the humor. Perhaps I've read too much modern noir to go along with the silly dames and the macho males. As a sample of its genre it's spot on and I can appreciate it for that, but as an enjoyable read it's not a major hit, unfortunately. ( )
  -Eva- | Aug 1, 2014 |
I really want to like this book because it was highly recommended by other mystery writers. The writing was good and it was written in another era. But I just don't like Sam Spade.


I don't like how he had an affair with his partner's wife. And when his partner's wife became "available," he tried to dodge her. ( )
  annertan | Jul 31, 2014 |
When a beautiful woman shows up in the office of private detective Sam Spade and his partner asking for a tail on a man, it leads to the death of Spade's partner as well as the man he was tailing. Everyone seems to think Spade knows more than he does about the deaths and a mysterious object, and Spade tries not to change their perception while discovering as much as he can about the mystery. I had seen the film several times, but this is the first time I've read the book. Spade can hold his own in a fight, but he has more than physical strength going for him. It's a shame that Hammett didn't write more novels featuring this intelligent, quick thinking, and quick talking private eye. The mystery has a strong sense of place in San Francisco, and it's difficult to imagine the action taking place anywhere else. I have all of Hammett's novels in a collected edition and I look forward to reading the rest at some point in the future. ( )
  cbl_tn | Jul 20, 2014 |
This novel is a classic from 1929. The detective is Sam Spade located in San Francisco and one of the first hard-boil detective genre. Spade and his partner are hired by a woman and soon his partner is dead. This woman isn't telling the truth, uses her feminine whiles to get her way and Sam has to dig for the clues to who murdered his partner and why. Of course it all involves the Maltese Falcon. It's a quick read. I liked it much better than The Thin Man. This book is one of the 100 best on the Modern Library list. ( )
  Kristelh | Jul 9, 2014 |
Hammett is an amazing writer. I picked this book up after reading about Hammett's life, and how, essentially, he wrote furiously and gained fame fast, but then had writer's block the rest of his life.

This book was great in the sense that every detective novel I've ever read, or movie I've seen (or even Picard's holodeck excursions on Star Trek: The Next Generation) are based on the descriptions Hammett creates here.

I have now read 2 of Hammett's books, and I hope to read more!
( )
  csweder | Jul 8, 2014 |
Hammett is an amazing writer. I picked this book up after reading about Hammett's life, and how, essentially, he wrote furiously and gained fame fast, but then had writer's block the rest of his life.

This book was great in the sense that every detective novel I've ever read, or movie I've seen (or even Picard's holodeck excursions on Star Trek: The Next Generation) are based on the descriptions Hammett creates here.

I have now read 2 of Hammett's books, and I hope to read more!
( )
  csweder | Jul 8, 2014 |
I found a copy of The Maltese Falcon among my adult son's left-behind-upon-growing-up books and decided to reread it (long ago read, long ago forgotten) for two reasons: I needed an "easy read" at bedtime during tax season (I earn my living as a tax consultant) and because so many contemporary poets seem to be fascinated by noir fiction and films and I want to "get it." Hmmm. It's hard to read this book without populating it in one's imagination with movie stars' faces and figures. That said, the aspect of Hammett's novel that most amused and mystified me was his physical description of his characters. I just could not mentally picture all the "v"s inscribed in Sam Spade's face ("His lips protruded loosely, pouting. He drew them in to make a hard v and went to the telephone."), nor his yellow, leaden, molten, etc. gaze. All of this I found hilarious. I also laughed during the big confrontation scene at the end where Sam Spade gets the best of the gang of thieves (Brigid O'Shaughnessy, Gutman, Cairo,& the young and loathsome gunman Wilmer)and while doing so sends Brigid to the kitchen to whip up breakfast (not just coffee, mind you, but eggs, bacon, toast and marmalade). She may have been a cold-blooded murderer and perhaps the most ruthless person in the room, but she was also the "secretary" when the "boss" got hungry. In a less critical view, perhaps Hammett intended to reprise here the breakfast Sam cooked for Brigid the morning after their one steamy night together earlier in the novel. Which brings me to the ending, which buys the book in my opinion. The interchange between Sam and Brigid when he lets her know that he's going to turn her in for the murder of his business partner Miles is priceless. Spade "Well, if I send you over I'll be sorry as hell--I'll have some rotten nights-but that'll pass." Bottom line: "I won't play the sap for you." ( )
  Paulagraph | May 25, 2014 |
I very much enjoyed the fast pace and quick banter of this novel, and could not help envisioning Bogart, Lorre, and Greenstreet while I was reading about Spade, Cairo, and Gutman. It has been a while since I saw the movie, but the book felt very familiar, and now that I see Hammett also wrote the screenplay for the movie, I see why.

Lots of fun! ( )
  glade1 | May 19, 2014 |
Here we go. Book number two in my 25 crime-fiction classic list! After finishing this, I probably should've started with this one but honestly, who's going to blame me for reading a Raymond Chandler novel first?

Sam Spade and Miles Archer, private eye's residing in San Fransisco, are hired by a woman to procure the safe return of her little sister after she has run off with another man. While Spade accepts the job, he doesn't completely buy Ms. Wonderly's story feeling that there is more to what she's telling them. What turns out to be the understatement to end all understatement's, Spade becomes entangled in a search for a rare, valuable statue that puts his life in danger and his reputation with the law on the line.

I was originally hesitant about starting this noir/hard boiled/crime fiction journey because I was under the impression that these books were going to suffer from such massive over-hype that I would feel RIDICULOUS for not liking them.

This book was just tremendous. Really, just all around greatness from start to finish. It blows my mind that there had not been many books around at the time written in this style or with characters like these. It must have had people reeling when they finished it, scrambling for more!

Like Chandler's The Big Sleep, this book is endlessly quotable. I'm such a fan of great similes and snappy, witty dialogue and this book is just stuffed to the breaking point with memorable lines.

If it hadn't been so damn entertaining, I may have taken a little bit of an issue that Spade never really seems to be in any danger. Despite the fact that these criminals have the upper hand on a few occasions, they come across as buffoons with no real plans of their own.

That being said, it's hard to really find fault in something so excellent.

On a side note, something tells me that if I slap someone and they get angry, I wouldn't be able to tell them they'll take it AND like it. It works for Spade because he's clearly so damn slick but I doubt I have the ability to pull that one off. ( )
1 vote branimal | Apr 1, 2014 |
The Maltese Falcon

Too many adjectives.

The most striking thing about this novel is the physique of the characters, particularly Sam Spade's. Instead of a unified organic whole his body seems to be a writhing assembly of independently minded parts.

One of my favourite sentences is "He made angry gestures with mouth, eyebrows, hands, and shoulders."

What??? Were these parts each making their own gestures? I imagine Spade twitching bizarrely while all these unspecified gestures were being made, which I doubt was Hammett's intent. He's gone to great lengths to convey nothing.

Hammett seems anxious about the potential of bodily parts to break free. On page 1 we learn that Spade's assistant, Effie Perine (never mentioned other than with both names) has brown eyes. On page 22 Effie Perine's brown eyes open wide. On page 24 her brown eyes are uneasy. On page 94 she moves her brown eyes to indicate the inner office. Phew! Still brown, then. Did Hammett imagine we might worry they'd changed?

Hammett uses clumsy expressions which I found constantly interrupted the flow of the narrative. Spade is supposed to look "rather pleasantly like a blonde satan", but also somewhat wolf-like. He has a v-shaped mouth over a v-shaped jaw, and when he smiles he smiles with his lower lip, exposing his 'jaw teeth". (Right, that'll be the bottom/lower teeth.) I think Bogart must have attempted this, as when I read it I immediately remembered him making a curious grimace which exposed his lower teeth. It had made an impression on me because his teeth were not good and it looked both unattractive and peculiar. My attempts came nowhere near a hint of a smile and gave me cramp in my chin.

Spade's wolfishness is reinforced by his gleaming yellow eyes and the 'animal noise' which he frequently makes 'in his throat'.

The following passage gives some feeling of the tediousness of the descriptions:-

"She shook her head, not smiling. Her eyes moved back and forth between her lids as she shook her head, maintaining their focus on Spade's eyes. Her eyes were inquisitive.

Spade put an arm across her back, cupping his hand over the smooth white bare shoulder farthest from him. She leaned back into the bend in his arm. He said: 'Well, I'm listening.'

She twisted her head around to smile up at him with playful insolence, asking: 'Do you need your arm there for that?'

'No.' He removed his hand from her shoulder and let his arm drop down behind her.

'You're altogether unpredictable,' she murmured.

He nodded and said amiably: 'I'm still listening.'

'Look at the time!' she exclaimed, wriggling a finger at the alarmclock perched atop the book saying two-fifty with its clumsily shaped hands."

Even the clock doesn't get away with simply saying the time, it says it with its hands, clumsily shaped though they are. And why was she 'wriggling' her finger? Hands feature a lot in this novel. They are generally ugly, though occasionally slim. Fingers are also ugly, and usually thick. Fingers get frequent mentions. Arms are long. Eyes get up to all sorts, occasionally in collusion with brows - "Anguish clouded her eyes, partly closed them under eyebrows pulled up at the inner ends." It's like having an out of control sat-nav describing moves so peculiar that I was constantly stopping to figure out what they could be, and then working out their feasibility. I reckon that a substantial number of them could only be replicated by a classically trained Indian dancer.

The only conceivable justification for this unhelpful verbosity would be that Hammett was being paid by the word. Which is a pity, because underneath it all is an interesting plot with nice twists.

I quite liked the old fashioned obviousness of the characters' names. The detective is Sam Spade, there is an extremely over-weight character called Mr Gutman, a 'Levantine' called Mr Cairo, and a beautiful, but iffy, client called Miss Wonderly.

Hammett may have a great reputation but I found him altogether too tiring.
  Oandthegang | Mar 19, 2014 |
Old fashioned, poor dialogue, stereotypical behavior. Too much description of Spade rolling many cigarettes. And stupid descriptions like "her lip was between her teeth" instead of "she bit her lip". ( )
  Runs2slow | Feb 21, 2014 |
I'm a mystery kinda girl, and this hit the spot.
Sam Spade is the kind of person I don't like...a real private (figure it out) in more ways than one.
But despite the characters flaws and the heterosexist privilege rampant in the book, I really enjoyed it. The mood, the language, the clever ways of getting around the censors--this is a book worth reading. ( )
  ageoflibrarius | Jan 25, 2014 |
Read 2013 as part of great novels project.
  ntgntg | Dec 17, 2013 |
Boy, did Brigid O'Shaughnessy have Sam Spade figured wrong! I really enjoyed re-reading this classic, walking the streets of San Francisco with Spade, settling in as he followed all the threads and tied them off in a nice bundle to hand over to the police. Through it all Spade is tough, terse and unsentimental, which constantly surprises those around him. Sam's not like the rest of us, good thing too. ( )
  AuntieClio | Dec 9, 2013 |
It took me a bit to get into this book - the sparse writing, with punctuated descriptions was difficult to get into to. But one I did, it was a joy to read. The characters are dark, even darker than most of the crime noire that this book started. For example, outside of Money, Sam Spade is an unfathomable character - he motivations are hidden. But, he is a full fledged character.

The book was written originally written in 1926 - So political correctness is not part of this book. Strangely enough, there is no profanity (not that I noticed). Is this due to the readers of the magazine this story was serialized in? Or something else completely. It makes the characters seem... gentlemanly.

I recommend this book if you like mysteries - and this is one of the best that is out there. ( )
  TheDivineOomba | Oct 20, 2013 |
The detective story that is said to set the standard for all detective stories that followed, The Maltese Falcon is an outstanding mystery...lots of twists and turns; characters who are not what they seem to be, and a detective, Sam Spade, who is supremely self confident and intuitive when it comes to ferreting out the real truth.

Sam also has a way with the ladies, and sometimes that complicates his situation. In this case, a young woman comes into his office needing help to rescue her younger sister from an older man who has apparently persuaded the girl to run away with him to San Francisco. Sam and his partner take on the case and agree to tale the older man in the expectation that he will lead them to the younger sister.

But before the night is over, there is not one murder but two, and the police suspect Sam of murder or withholding information, or possibly both. Dashiell Hammett has created a great character in Sam Spade. He is admired by several cops, and even some of the criminals, not to mention the ladies. He may not have the standard ethics code down pat, but he is true to his own set of standards, and he deftly rolls one cigarette after another, chain smoking throughout the book without ever saying, "May I?" Hey, it was 1929, and Sam is the essence of Cool...

This is a great read, and worth reading a second time if it's been awhile! ( )
1 vote vcg610 | Oct 4, 2013 |
In the past when I've read about hardboiled detectives, I remember a saying something like: there are Raymond Chandler fans and there are Dashiell Hammett fans, but rarely will there be fans of both. I'm a big Chandler fan but I've liked quite a few films made from Hammett material, so I thought it was about time to actually read one of his books. Problem is I'm not sure I'm starting with the right one, since the Maltese Falcon film is so legendary.

Ebook, read via Open Library.

So that first paragraph was pre-read, and now I'm post-read. And now I can say with assurance; reading so much Chandler has ruined me. I now expect even pulp detective stories to be well written.

Short version: Plot gets all the stars, prose problems keep it from being higher. The ending - which still is really good - took it from 2 to 3.

Hammett is very good at writing both the plot and conversation - but outside of that both his writing style and his word choices can be extremely awkward, and take you out of the story. (This is aside from any 1930s slang issues.) Such that the words used are probably trying to evoke something other than what I'm reading into them. Example: physical descriptions of Spade don't seem handsome or appealing, and instead seem weird and unattractive. This is true even though he's clearly an anti-hero. (Multiple descriptions in quotes below, besides the next paragraph's example.)

Example: shoulders. Men of action straighten themselves, straighten their shoulders, etc. Spade is described multiple times as having "thick sloping shoulders" (p. 79, 165) - well, I read that as relaxed or non-muscular. Or bad posture, or someone with a back problem. The stereotype for men is straight or angular shoulders - women's are rounded and soft. Sloping - well, that's neither here nor there, and a muddy descriptor for me. (Which made me wonder if Hammett's own shoulders were sloping.) I think Hammett wanted me to imagine a football player-type physique - but by not giving me any other adjectives, I never saw that image and instead kept puzzling; "ok he can't keep meaning this to sound unattractive." "Thick" is I think supposed to read as "muscles" when it could as easily read "fat." Of course it doesn't, because when Hammett describes fat he goes all out, heading into insanely grotesque territory. See quote below, p. 104, "The fat man was flabbily fat..."

So I figured out pretty quickly that I was going to be both amused and confused by Hammett's descriptions of people.

I'm not ok with Hammett's portrayal of women. Again, I get that Spade's the usual anti-hero. So I didn't fault Spade for sleeping with his partner's wife, or ditching said annoying wife, or sleeping with client/woman in trouble/Brigid O'Shaughnessy while lying to her almost as often as she's lying to him - that's all par for the course of this sort of detective. No, I had the problem with Spade grabbing and yelling at his secretary - see quote below on p. 116-7. In this genre you don't rough up good girls on your side, and that's what he does. This may be another attempt to show us how strong and manly Spade is, but doesn't work for me. (Again, blame Chandler.) Though, like I noted earlier, this is a guy sleeping with his partner's wife - so he is indeed a disloyal shmuck already. (And Spade knows this about himself, and judges himself - another reason I gave this 3 and not 2 stars.) Spade's bad at apologies too. Perhaps Hammett thinks he's written Spade as charming - but honestly, I now have a higher standard for both wit and charm in this genre (again, blame Chandler), and Hammett's nowhere near reaching either. Yet Hammett does have the ability to write well, and you can see that very clearly in parts of the book like the story of Mr. Flitcraft (p. 64). In fact that part is such a good piece of writing it stands out and makes you wish there were more like it. (It makes you sad that there aren't more moments like that.)

So what about the Hammett writing style in particular is annoying? He has some sentences in the passive voice which doesn't match the surrounding sentences that aren't passive. So they stick out like a sore thumb. I can't tell if he's trying to tell me something by doing this, or just trying to make the story sound a certain way at that point, or there's no reason. He uses some words to describe things that don't quite work as clear descriptions, and I can't tell if that's a joke somehow or not. And then there are sentences that are just plain awkwardly and badly written that I can't believe anyone would purposefully write that way. This almost always seems to happen when he's describing something - people, a room, etc. (Again, see quotes below and under Reading Progress.)

Another example: the use of character names. One moment Spade's secretary is Effie Perine, the next she's "the girl." It's rarely just Effie, though she is sometimes "sweetheart." These make her seem like a character in a screenplay more than a character in a novel that we're supposed to pretend is real and full of life. She is the girl. One of the villains is "the boy." These seem more like objects than people, and they are moved here and there. There always seems to be that distance between us and them, which this name use emphasizes. And when the passive voice is mixed in with this - well, it doesn't help matters. It just makes it seem more like stage directions than prose.

Every time I would be enjoying the plot - because again, the plot is good - these sorts of issues would smack me in the face and take me out of the story. Like I said, I get that this is all pulp magazine fare of its day - but so was Chandler's work. And like I said, Chandler has ruined me - I now expect more. At the same time I also totally understand why Hammett was adored by scriptwriters, because plot and conversation are key for both radio and screenplay work.

Is it still worth it to read this as a fan of the film? Yes definitely. You'll see all the rough bits that were worked into the film, and frankly agree with everything that was edited to be shorter or less grotesque (the fat man).

I plan to read more Hammett in the future, just to see if this book is a fair sample of his work. But I have the sense that I'll still be amused with his writing style. Or maybe just wish that he'd had someone to edit him.

Quotes to ponder:

p. 3:"Samuel Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down - from high flat temples - in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan."Describing nostril shape is a new area for me, the reader. I immediately find this goofy. And no, satan is not capitalized in this paragraph.

p 4, to contrast Spade, a description of The Woman (note, that's me calling her The Woman, but there's usually just one that's an enigma in this kind of detective story, the rest are window dressing):"...She advanced slowly, with tentative steps, looking at Spade with cobalt-blue eyes that were both shy and probing.

She was tall and pliantly slender, without angularity anywhere. Her body was erect and high-breasted, her legs long, her hands and feet narrow. She wore two shades of blue that had been selected because of her eyes. The hair curling from under her blue hat was darkly red, her full lips more brightly red. White teeth glistened in the crescent her timid smile made."Hammett seems better at describing women. At least I can feel sure that I'm supposed to get that this woman is attractive. Though I have no idea why describing teeth is necessary - people usually assume those are nice and only describe them if they're not or are fang-like. Also he has the oddest word placement: "the crescent her timid smile made?" No idea if this had something to do with him leaving school at 13 or if he's going for an effect.

p 12:"He took off his pajamas. The smooth thickness of his of his arms, legs, and body, the sag of his big rounded shoulders, made his body like a bear's. It was like a shaved bear's: his chest was hairless. His skin was childishly soft and pink."Er, I didn't think I was supposed to be kinda grossed out by Spade? Aren't I supposed to find him attractive? Hammett has an odd idea of what's attractive in a man - or maybe this is one of those "it was another time" moments. Or he's just bad at description? Or more people go for soft-shaved-bear-men than I realize? Note: the rounded shoulders description gets repeated a lot more in pages to come. In a way that - because of how it's written - doesn't sound like brawny or burly, and instead like posture problems.

p 42, Effie, Spade's secretary, tells him the next visitor, Joel Cairo, is "queer." Hello, 1930s, it's stereotype time."Mr. Joel Cairo was a small-bones dark man of medium height. His hair was black and smooth and very glossy. His features were Levantine. ...His black coat, cut tight to narrow shoulders, flared a little over slightly plump hips. His trousers fitted his round legs more snugly than was the current fashion. The uppers of his patent-leather shoes were hidden by fawn spats. He held a black derby hat in a chamois-gloved hand and came towards Spade with short, mincing, bobbing steps. The fragrance of chypre came with him.This left me wondering when spats had suddenly become the fashion accessory of villains. Because good guys never wear spats. And frankly only slightly humorous villains wear them because the word does sound amusing. Oh and the portion I cut out? A sentence about jewelry, because of course real mean don't wear jewelry. Meanwhile I think Hammet spends more time on Cairo's description than any of the other characters.

p. 64, the story of Mr. Flitcraft - this is an excellent bit/story."...He, the good citizen-husband-father, could be wiped out between office and restaurant by the accident of a falling beam. He knew then that men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them.
...Life could be ended for him at random by a falling beam: he would change his life at random by simply going away."More of the writing should be like this - so apparently as long as Spade is talking or telling us a story, it's good.

p 93, Hammett's descriptions of men always have me stopping and rereading with a "wait, what?":"His clothing was neither new nor of more than ordinary quality, but it, and his manner of wearing it, was marked by a hard masculine neatness."I am completely and utterly unfamiliar with this specific form of neatness.

p. 104, and this is how Hammett describes Mr Gutman:"The fat man was flabbily fat with bulbous pink cheeks and lips and chins and neck, with a great soft egg of a belly that was all his torso, and pendant cones for arms and legs. As he advanced to meet Spade all his bulbs rose and shook and fell separately with each step, in the manner of clustered soap-bubbles not yet released from the pipe through which they had been blown. His eyes, made small by fat puffs around them, were dark and sleek.So much to be critical with here, but I'll just say "all his bulbs" and that eyes can be "sleek" - weird word choices, and ones which pull me out of the narrative rather than adding to it. I'll just add that the phrase "his bulbs jostled one another" is typical in what you get in further descriptions in the next few pages.

p 116-7:"Spade took two long steps and caught Effie Perine by the shoulders. "She didn't get there?" he bawled into her frightened face.

[plot stuff here regarding "oh no, where is Person X!"]

...He said "You ought to know better than to pay any attention to me when I talk like that."

"If you think I pay any attention to you you're crazy, she replied, "only" - she crossed he arms and felt her shoulders, and her mouth twitched uncertainly - "I won't be able to wear an evening gown for two weeks, you big brute."

"He grinned humbly, said, "I'm no damned good, darling," made an exaggerated bow, and went out again."And here's where I note that Chandler has ruined me, because Spade's actions in this scene would be a big "this is the villain" tipoff in a Chandler story. In case you don't get it, Spade has actually grabbed Effie so hard he's bruised/hurt her, aside from scaring her. That's her way of informing him both of that hurt and how much physical damage there was, and then that was his way of apologizing.

...Ok I'm now at the point where I can't figure out what more I'm supposed to be reading from the text. Because all of Hammett's descriptions of men seem to be - well, they're all weird. I can't figure out what's supposed to attract and what's supposed to repel. Mainly because I'm repelled by most all of them. Anyhow, I can't help but feel there's more going on in this description, especially because it's the longest action/fight scene that's occurred so far. p 120:"...Then Spade asked pleasantly: "How long have you been off the goose-berry lay, son?"

The boy did not show that he had heard the question.

...Spade lagged a little, so that when they were within fifteen feet of Gutman's door, he was perhaps a foot and a half behind the boy. He leaned sidewise suddenly and grasped the boy from behind by both arms, just beneath the boys elbows. He forced the boy's arms forward so that the boy's hands, in his overcoat-pockets, lifted up before him. The boy struggled and squirmed but he was impotent in the big man's grip. The boy kicked back, but his feet went between Spade's spread legs.

Spade lifted the boy straight up from the floor and brought him down hard on his feet again. The impact made little noise on the thick carpet. At the moment of impact Spade's hands slide down and got a fresh grip on the boy's wrists. The boy, teeth set hard together, did not stop straining against the big man's hands, but he could not tear himself loose, could not keep the man's hands from crawling down over his own hands. The boy's teeth ground together audibly, making a noise that mingled with the noise of Spade's breathing as Spade crushed the boy's hands."So is it this scene that made Hammett write descriptions of the boy having "hard masculine neatness" (p 93) to wave a flag that "no no, this is NOT the same as Mr Cairo" or am I supposed to see some sexuality in there? Because I can't tell anymore. Also yes, that is supposed to be "sidewise," or that's how it is in the book. ...Meanwhile I'll just note that Hammett wrote a hellova lot less about kissing The Woman, than about fighting the boy.

...So that sentence about "goose-berry lay" - which I didn't understand - turns out to be relevant. Thanks to a google search:Book link here, p 250 of The Web of Iniquity: Early Detective Fiction by American Women, By Catherine Rossnickerson (I think this is from a footnote):

"Both punk and gunsel, the terms by which Hammett and Chandler's characters refer to young men in the employ of villains, have definite connotations of homosexuality. Both were used in the nineteenth century to refer derisively to young tramps who formed sexual pairs with older men on the road; it was in the mid-twentieth century that punk came to mean a worthless, no-account young man. The connection to the world of the vagabonds is underlined when Spade taunts Wilmer by asking "[H]ow long have you been off the goose-berry lay, son?"(120) - that is to say, in tramps' lingo, "How long has it been since you were stealing garments off clotheslines?" ...Tramps, vagabonds, and drifters became increasingly visible to mainstream culture in the Depression, and according to Estelle Freedman, they were associated with dangerous and deviant sexual values."So I'm not just imagining the sexuality in that scene.

p 133:"...Sweetheart, you've got an uncle who teaches history or something over at the University?"
"A cousin. Why?"
"If we brightened his life with an alleged historical secret four centuries old could we trust him to keep it dark awhile?"
"Oh yes, he's good people."

p 159:"...He put his other arm around Effie Perine and crushed her body against his. "We've got the damned thing, angel," he said.
"Ouch!" she said, "you're hurting me."And that's the second accidentally hurt Effie scene.

p. 213-4, some of the big speech at the end. Nothing exactly plot spoilery quoted but I'm putting it under spoiler quote anyway, because it answers character questions about Spade that have been floating around unasked and unanswered. This is only the start of the first paragraph, dialog only:"He said: "Listen. This isn't a damned bit of good. You'll never understand me, but I'll try once more and then we'll give it up. Listen. When a man's partner is killed he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it's bad business to let the killer get away with it. It's bad all around - bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere. Third, I'm a detective and expecting me to run criminals down and then let them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go. It can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done, but it's not the natural thing."The full Seven Reasons in this long speech (it goes on for several more paragraphs/another page) are entirely hardboiled code. Good stuff, and I only wish there'd been more dialog like this. It's a much longer speech than I'd have thought after seeing the film. No way something of this length could work in a film of course, totally needed trimming. But really enjoyable to see it's original form.

Since you made it this far:

I couldn't resist making a list - Odd Things Eyes Are Doing in Dashiell Hammett's Maltese Falcon
( )
  bookishbat | Sep 25, 2013 |
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