Monday, January 30, 2012

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

Title: The Maltese Falcon
Author: Dashiell Hammett
Publisher: Various, originally serialized in the magazine Black Mask (1930)

Michael and I have emerged from The Slide and, with 2012 well under way, it's time to kick-start the joint post series wherein I review a novel and Michael reviews its movie adaptation. Our little project began way back (*grin*) in May of 2010 and has been one of the unexpected joys of my blogging habit. My reading life has been enriched by our exchanges, which is something every avid reader appreciates. Plus, I can now boast of having acquired the skills needed for audiobooks. I remain a neophyte but my training moves along nicely.

The year did not begin with rainbows and kittens and confetti in sgwordy's circle of existence so it was a relief that we went with a title I had already read and seen (great suggestion, Michael!). And, as luck would have it, I'd already posted about this book. Since I'm going to do the copy/paste deal (with minor editing for clarity's sake) I thought I would at least spice things up by including some informative links for anyone not familiar with Dashiell Hammett or this classic private eye novel.  The first and most important link, though, is:

I found this bio to be thorough and interesting. From the same website, some info on the book. This bio is a little shorter if you're in a hurry. This link has a list of, I think, Hammett's short stories and then various analyses/comments on his plots and novels. And now, for my two cents.

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 or after the 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 that much but that my recent mystery/crime/thrillers had mostly been 1st person and I was getting sick of that perspective. So huzzah and hooray for a different perspective whilst solving a mystery. Irrelevant side note: 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 because it was more to do with Spade's 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 possibly is unfair to judge a book that is ~80 years old in this manner.

From these comments are you 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. [editor's note: how true, over a year later and i still haven't read this]

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

Coming up next:
Persuasion by Jane Austen


  1. As usual, a fine book review. I did, in fact, recently do this one via audiobook (btw, the narrator, William Dufris, nailed Gutman's voice with a distinct Sidney Greenstreet intonation). And the strong suit of the Hammett work was its dialogue. Which is why the film adaptation works, and better I believe, because it delivered that aspect to the audience. Still, the read was very interesting in that it was 80+ years old and you could spot where later detective mystery tropes arose.

    "I especially liked how it was established that Spade has no idea how to relate to women in a non-sexual manner."

    Excellent point, Rachel. Spade was fascinating but not terribly likable character. So, too, were those interactions with the women in the story. But, then again his interactions with the men were only slightly better (perhaps, even worst if you drew down on him with a gun). I'm glad to have finally read this one, but understand, given its age, that it didn't have you salivating for another.

    I also picked up THE THIN MAN in audiobook. If you decide to take that one up later in the year, we could make it a duo post. I'm glad this month's pick worked out for you. Many thanks for the kind words and review, Rachel.

  2. Heya Michael! I'm really enjoying this discussion. Great pairing to compare and chat about. I also think the dialogue is the best part of the story!

    "Still, the read was very interesting in that it was 80+ years old and you could spot where later detective mystery tropes arose."

    Absolutely and this very thing is what made the book rather meh for me. Isn't that ironic? Experiencing the source of the staples in P.I. novels loses its impact to one who reads the source well after many contemporary P.I. novels. If Hammett were alive, I'd feel the need to apologize.

    "then again his interactions with the men were only slightly better"

    Oh, quite! He is not so good with the social interactions. He can only relate to women sexually and men aggressively. I would be inclined to think it might be only in work, we see a small snap shot of his work life in a very stressful job and so that might explain his behavior. But, and I think this relates to his personal code of ethics mentioned in your film review, it seems more likely that he carries his behavior and ethos (if we can count him as a community of one:) into every walk of life. Thoughts on that? Do you think his behavior is divided by work and non-work modes?

    Great idea on THE THIN MAN. I'll get that in audio this week (need a new one, finished CHASING DARKNESS over the weekend). I'm slow to finish audio since I only listen while biking but I'll let you know when it's done so that we can get it on the list.

  3. I forgot I wanted to include the cover because I liked it so much. Better late than never...

  4. Good point. Considering Spade is thrust into a life or death mystery just about at the very start of the story, his work becomes his life for the duration. The before and after non-work mode of his remains mostly unknown. But... given that he had an affair with his partner's wife... well, maybe he does lack a little in the civility and community department. Or, he's just an alpha male and those don't apply ;-).

    Thanks, Rachel.