Where the hell to start – private eye Sam Spade is approached by an alluring young woman, Ruth Wonderley, and asked to track down her sister. His partner, Miles Archer, volunteers for the job, but is dead before the night is out, leaving Spade to fend off some awkward questions from the police, particularly as Miles’ wife and Spade have been, well, pulling a few 'late shifts' together. When the enigmatic Joel Cairo, and later the flamboyantly sinister Kasper Gutman – ‘the Fat Man’ – appear on the scene, offering Spade small fortunes to retrieve a legendary jewel-encrusted figurine of a bird, our hero realises Miss Wonderley isn’t all that she might seem. In fact, no one is, and Spade is left trying to piece the puzzle together while dodging the double crosses, triple crosses and red herrings. Is the Falcon real, or is it simply a MacGuffin...?
This is a pleasant fiction, is it not?
On my signal, unleash hell:
Eyes. Hellfire. Hammett was obsessed with them. He couldn’t mention a character in a scene without telling you the colour of their eyes (for the fortieth or so time), what those eyes were up to and what colour they were glowing. At the end of chapter nine, Spade’s eyes glow ‘yellowly’. Seriously. It’s a shame, because it plays havoc as a reader, stopping you in your tracks, throwing you out of the story all too often. A bit of eye description is fine in moderation. I don’t think Hammett knew the meaning of the word. In fact, it wasn’t just the eyes that Hammett got carried away with; facial features in general took a battering.
There is also a nagging feeling that the plot, while beautifully structured, could have stretched its legs a touch. Complex though events are, not a huge amount happens, particularly in terms of action. And then there’s the narrative mode used – third person objective, which doesn’t allow you anywhere near the inner mechanics of Spade’s mind. Hammett most likely employed this because Spade, it turns out, knows more about what is going on than the reader believes him to know, and he may have felt it would be easier to not delve into his detective’s viewpoint. It’s a shame, because it could have been a richer experience had Hammett taken the plunge and gone for third person subjective, or indeed first person.
A fine, page-turning read. Is it better than Chandler’s The Big Sleep? Probably not, but I’m about to re-read The Big Sleep for a book club, as it’s been several years since I first read it. I’d also suggest that Ross Macdonald’s The Doomsters is superior to The Maltese Falcon, not to mention a few of Macdonald’s other books. But that’s nitpicking. Hammett, his eye obsession apart, constructed a beautiful tale of treachery which is as much a page-turner now as it was on its release in 1930.
- The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett
- For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway