Thursday, 13 August 2009

Revelling in the style of The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett

What’s it all about, Quirky?

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?

It sure is. Hammett’s punchy, slick writing style is in complete contrast to Hemingway’s endless meanderings. The Maltese Falcon is considered one of the finest American detective novels ever written – if not the finest – and it’s a reputation that I think owes as much to the classic John Huston movie, with Bogart as Spade, as it does to the novel, even if Bogart was considered too short and dark to play Spade. The book is short – just over 200 pages – but Hammett packed it with a plot so intricate and cunning, Edmund Blackadder could have stuck a tail on it and called it a weasel.

What lifts The Maltese Falcon above the norm, though, is the characterisation. Spade is a right piece of work – a cool, tough womaniser, who at times seems as corruptible as the creeps he’s trying to best. Hammett had great fun with those villains – Cairo appears first, and you can feel the slime creep off the pages and onto your fingers, and Gutman is pure theatre. Wonderful stuff. Miss Wonderley – or Brigid O’Shaughnessy as she reveals herself to be – is the kind of femme fatale you want to step out of the pages and take you out for dinner. And yet, it’s the creepy Wilmer, the young pup lackey of Gutman, an emotionless killer who looks like he couldn’t beat up a corpse, who really gets under the skin.

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.

The Verdict:

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.


Straight in at number one, bumping Hemingway down to second (and, thus far, last):
  1. The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett
  2. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway

1 comment:

  1. I hadn't realised how good the names were till I read this. Spade digs up the truth. Gutman is a rapacious baddie and the heroine is wondrous though it's a pseudonym. How could you read it without thinking of Bogart...sigh!