Sunday, June 5, 2011

"The Maltese Falcon" by Dashiell Hammett

Published: 1930
Read: 2011
Genre: Fiction - Detective
Setting: San Francisco 1929-1930
Rating: 3
List: 1,001 books
Review: Goodreads

I got this book off my daughter's bookshelf as it is referenced in David Morrell's book Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing.  I'm sure it was also mentioned in Maureen Corrigan's Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading as she is a fan of the hard-boiled detective genre.

Hammett's book is short, only 217 pages.  Told in the third person by a narrator who knows all (I think), but discloses little, which is frustrating.  Maybe this is because I just finished Madame Bovary, where Flaubert's use of free indirect discourse exposes the thoughts and motives of the characters so the reader , like the narrater, knows all and sees all.

Instead, Hammett's characters are revealed via succinct description, snappy dialogue and quick-paced action, making the novel easy to read but the characters enigmatic.  So more questions than answers.  After chapter 2, I had so many, I had to write them down.

Hammett's protagonist is Sam Spade, the smooth-talking, physically tough, emotionally detached, poker-faced private eye who can read others like a book but is himself, inscrutable. WhiIe reading, I wasn't sure if he was a good guy or not.  For example, his calloused reaction to his partner's murder was disconcerting.  The morning after, he says to his secretary, Effie Perine, very matter-of-factly while leaving the office, "Have the Spade & Archer taken off the door and Samuel Spade put on."  And later, when she remarks, "'You look like you'd swallowed a canary.'  He grinned contentedly, 'I think we have a future.  I always had an idea that if Miles would go off and die somewhere we'd stand a better chance of thriving.  Will you take care of sending flowers for me?'"

After finishing the book, I think he is an okay guy but am not sure I like him. Spade is a magnet for women and ruthlessly uses this to his advantage. But the two women he treats harshly, Iva Archer (newly widowed) and Brigid O'Shaughnessy (victim or manipulator?), were out to use him too.  In contrast, to Effie, he acts like an older brother, with teasing affection.  So maybe, he is a good judge of character and treats people accordingly.

The easy nonchalant way in which he knocks someone out is a bit scary.  With Hammett's writing, I can picture this in slow motion.
Then Spade smiled.  His smile was gentle, even dreamy.  His right shoulder raised a few inches.  His bent 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.  Cairo shut his eyes and was unconscious.
Here is an example of how we learn that Sam has an uncanny way of reading people, not by the narrator revealing his thoughts, but by "watching" what he says and does.
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.
'You aren't,' he asked as he sat down, 'exactly the sort of person you pretend to be, are you?'
She blushed and replied hurriedly, not looking at him, 'I told you this afternoon that I've been bad - worse than you could know.'
'That's what I mean,' he said. 'You told me that this afternoon in the same words, same tone.  It's a speech you've practiced.'
What else do we learn about Sam from this scene and dialogue?  That he is unafraid of confrontation.  He doesn't mind making people feel uncomfortable.  He is cocky and confident in his observations and assumes he is always correct.

In the following scene, we see what he does and in particular, what his eyes look like, but the question is: what is he thinking?
Spade's arm went around her, holding her to him, muscles bulging his blue sleeves, a hand cradling her head, its fingers half lost among her red hair, a hand moving groping fingers over her slim back.  His eyes burned yellow.
Interesting description.  Reminds me of a cat.  A predator or a conquerer.  There is nothing romantic about him.  A little spooky.

This sentence is amazing - I had to write it down.  The choice and use of words is so interesting.
The appearance of Gutman and his companions seemed to have robbed her of that freedom of personal movement and emotion that is animal, leaving her alive, conscious, but quiescent as a plant.
Takeaways: Read Raymond Chandler's novels, set in Los Angeles with Philip Marlowe as the protagonist, modeled after Sam Spade.

  • The Big Sleep
  • Farewell My Lovely
  • The High Window
  • The Lady in the Lake

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