Friday, June 18, 2010

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

Title: The Maltese Falcon
Author: Dashiell Hammett
Publisher: Knopf (1929)

It very well could be that I had a "This Is Spinal Tap" experience with Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. After a couple Behind the Music marathons the brilliance of This is Spinal Tap is slightly overshadowed by the real thing. Of course I laughed and enjoyed it (seriously, how can you not laugh at the tiny bread? don't remember the tiny bread? click here) but I obviously didn't see it at the right time. We've all experienced this, right? You were so excited but then it turns out you saw/read something after the hype/right age has completely passed you by? Well, anyway, this might be the case with me and this book. But how about a synopsis first...

San Francisco PI, Sam Spade, is hired by Brigid O'Shaughnessy to help reunite her with her sister. Brigid is pretty sure her sister is kickin' it with a bad man and she'd like help getting her sister away from him. This is all lies, of course, and after the death of his partner Spade becomes embroiled in recovering a stolen statue (see title). Just who stole the statue and who is its rightful owner depends entirely on who is telling the story.

I have to say right up front that my favorite thing about this book was that it was in the 3rd person. My little heart just pitter pattered with love and appreciation when I saw that. It's not that I mind 1st person so much but that my recent readings (esp of the mystery/crime thriller variety) have mostly been 1st person and I was getting sick of that perspective. So huzzah and hooray for a different perspective whilst solving a mystery. Also of note is that I felt the book had no rhythm. This might seem an odd statement but as a speed reader I'm extremely sensitive to rhythm in books. No rhythm = very difficult to speed read. What I can't say for sure is whether I need the rhythm to fit my brain or if books simply have natural rhythms that I pick up on. It may be a little of both, though, because often enough I come by books (most recently Mrs. Dalloway (Woolf) and The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death (Huston)) that take me 3-4 chapters to find their rhythm. Only after I've found it am I able to speed read (note: I don't always speed read but I'm irrationally put out if the option is taken away:). Anyway, noticing this rhythm thing got me to thinking about what exactly might remove rhythm from a book and my best guess for this book is that it was due to the odd way in which Hammett described action.

Hammett doesn't exactly take short cuts when describing action. In fact, I'm hard pressed to recall if the word "punch" was ever used though certainly several punches were thrown. He has a very distinct style in that he takes you practically step-by-step through the action. A condensed example:
Spade pushed Cairo gently aside and drove his left fist against the boy's chin. The boy's head snapped back as far as it could while his arms were held, and then came forward...Spade drove his right fist against the boy's chin. Cairo dropped the boy's arm, letting him collapse against Gutman's great round belly. Cairo sprang at Spade, clawing at his face with the curved stiff fingers of both hands. Spade blew his breath out and pushed the Levantine away...Spade stopped him with both palms held out on long rigid arms against his face.

There's nothing at all wrong with the style but much of the info listed I can perfectly imagine on my own and, frankly, would assume... heads snapping when punched, stiff fingers when scratching, it would obviously take rigid arms to stop someone in that way, etc. Again, nothing wrong with it it's just that, for me, it resulted in a lack of rhythm. And also, it gave the action a stop-motion quality. Since each step was detailed my brain imagined everything happening much slower than it would in reality.

I liked the twists and turns of the plot but felt it was a tad bogged down in the info-dumping dialogue used to explain it. Also [spoilerish: highlight if interested], why the fuck did Effie and Sam trust Brigid even a little bit. I spent the whole book just waiting for her crumbumness to become known. My favorite character was probably Gutman because he made me laugh and was surprisingly pragmatic. Speaking of characters/characterization I especially liked how it was established that Spade has no idea how to relate to women in a non-sexual manner. I preferred that to many of my experiences with leading men who inevitably end up in the sack with the leading lady (or ladies, or supporting ladies, too) because it was more to do with his social adjustment (or lack thereof depending on perspective) than Leading Man Sees Leading Lady, Must Humpty Hump Right Damn Now. I will refrain from any other gender relation explorations as poss is unfair to judge a book that is ~80 years old in this manner.

From these comments are you totally getting my whole "This Is Spinal Tap" experience thing?

I liked the book well enough though not so much that I will run right out and get more Hammett or even recommend him to anyone. I am interested in The Thin Man though so will probably look out for it sometime in the future. But again, no rushing from me.

There are a lot of great lines in the book and I'm going to leave you with my two faves:
Gutman: "...but we were talking then. This is actual money, genuine coin of the realm, sir. With a dollar of this you can buy more than with ten dollars of talk."

Spade: "That's the trick, from my side," he said, "to make my play strong enough that it ties you up, but yet not make you mad enough to bump me off against your better judgment."

rating: 3 of 5 stars


  1. One fine review of this classic, Rachel. How does it compare to John Huston's film adaptation of the it in your mind? Did Bogart seem like Sam Spade? Thanks much for this.

  2. I'm watching it tomorrow so I'll be back to report. However, I have a definite mental picture in my mind looks-wise and it's nothing like Bogart. Mannerisms can go a long way though so he might hook me that way.

  3. Finally swinging around to report back. I thought it was a very conscientious adaptation. My favorite lines even made it into the movie! I was 50-50 on the casting. For Spade/Bogart specifically... he was nothing like I pictured Spade but I did feel some of the mannerisms were dead on. I felt he was much better in the second half of the movie than the first. No idea why that would be since I highly doubt filming sequence matched scene order but that's how it felt to me. I wish there had been more chemistry between Spade and Brigid. My favorite character in the film ended up being Cairo. That actor was fantastic.