The Maltese Falcon

by Dashiell Hammett

The Maltese Falcon CoverThough I wouldn’t say I watch a lot of the genre, I believe it was Polanski’s Chinatown that showed me the possibilities of film noir, reminding me to keep an open mind for other, earlier pictures, such as The Third Man. Being more-or-less unfamiliar with detective-story fiction, however, I figured a good place to start would be the famous The Maltese Falcon; like The Third Man, it was another Hammett story, though I would, this time, not make the mistake of watching before reading. The story proved to be peppered with action and excitement, but, unfortunately, was also rather predictable and horribly, horribly dated.

(The erroneous statement in the preceding paragraph can best be attributed to my slipshod approach to research, breezing over The Thin Man in a list of Hammett books and believing I saw Third.)

The narration and dialogue very much shows its age, being written in the common parlance of 1920s San Francisco, presumably. This doesn’t hurt the story to me; if I didn’t expect it, I really wouldn’t have been prepared to read a detective-story from 1930. The plot seems reasonable, at first: After a seemingly straightforward case results in the death of his partner, Sam Spade delves deeper and finds himself in the middle of a no-holds-barred hunt for a jewel-encrusted bird. The problem, for me, was the ridiculousness with which things began to unfold. This came across as strange to me; given that Hammett used to work as a private detective, I expected some amount of realism to the story. I suspect that this could be because Hammett decided that excitement and drama was more important to his story than realism. (Or, perhaps, everything in the ’20s was just overly melodramatic.) Maybe The Maltese Falcon improves significantly if the ending surprises you, but I felt that major “twists” were either clearly telegraphed throughout the story or at least failed to amaze me.

But, perhaps I’m being too hard on The Maltese Falcon. It remains hugely popular and I do have to admit that it is great to experience Spade interacting with the other characters even––or, should I say, especially––when he gets a bit over the top. I felt that it wasn’t within throwing distance of my favourites in literature, but it was still, overall, an enjoyable read.