The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon is a novel by American author Dashiel Hammett, originally published in 1929. It’s one of the school of detective novels called ‘hard boiled’ and features Sam Spade. Spade is a tough, uncompromising private detective based in San Francisco.

The plot is based around the search for a mythical bejewelled golden statue of a falcon, and features just about everything you could want from a detective story. If you enjoy a a tale of  murder, theft, love, loyalty and betrayal, then you’ll like Hammett’s novel. The characters are great too.  Spade, is surprisingly honourable considering the murky world he moves in.  The other characters include an assorted cast of sinister villains, murderous sidekicks and bull-headed police detectives. It also has probably the best femme fatale in literature.

I won’t give the game away, but The Maltese Falcon is a fantastic page-turner, with plenty of plot twists. It will keep you hooked, and guessing, right up to the last page. It’s well written too. Hammett was a novelist, short-story writer and screen writer, who had worked as a detective for Pinkerton’s. He knew San Francisco well and his descriptions of characters and the city are well observed. Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon in the third person, and relied entirely on external description and dialogue to tell the story. This means that he doesn’t dive into the characters thoughts and feelings:  you only get to know them through their words and actions.

Writing in the third person is a technical challenge for authors, but works well for detective stories, because it keeps the reader guessing about whodunnit. As with most ‘hard boiled’ fiction, Hammett’s writing style is sparse and economical. He can tell you all you need to know about a character in two brief sentences, and his dialogue is sharp, sparkling and witty. The very pared down writing style is perfect for describing the shady criminal world of the novel.

The third person narrative and writing style also gives the book a very visual, cinematic feel. It’s not surprising that The Maltese Falcon has been filmed on several occasions,  the most famous and best version starred Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade. Unlike most novels, that have to be heavily adapted for the screen, The Maltese Falcon needed very few changes to make it a classic film. Normally I’m disappointed with film adaptations of books, but both the film and the book are pretty near perfect examples of their type.

Dashiell Hammett was a groundbreaking writer of this style of fiction. Many authors, such as Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard, continued the tradition of tough uncompromising novels of the criminal underworld

I love this kind of writing and Sam Spade is amongst my favourite literary detectives. A lot happens in this fairly short novel, but it never loses it’s realism and you’re kept guessing until the very end.

I hope you read and enjoy The Maltese Falcon. There are plenty of cheap paperback editions around, but I read the Kindle edition.

2 Responses

  1. Dave says:

    Ed McBain’s great. You put me on to him in the late ’70’s. My favourite was ‘Doors’, written from the criminal’s point of view. In actual fact, I’m going to download it on my Kindle now.

  2. John Mettham says:

    Good review Dave. I read it years ago but can’t really recall the ins and outs of the plot. I’ll have to give it another go.

    I like a good crime tale and used to be an ardent reader of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series of books which described the goings on of a group of cops from a fictional American City precinct as they chased after gritty criminal shenanigans from 1956 through to 2005. He wrote a lot of them and the only down side is sometimes, due to the sheer quantity, the plot-lines were frequently similar.

    Ed Mcbain was a pseudonym (Nom de plume) for Evan Hunter (born Salvatore Lombino) who interestingly, also wrote the 50’s classic novel “Blackboard Jungle” and wrote the screenplay for Hitchcock’s “The Birds”.

    Another good author worthy of a read after we’ve all had another bash at the “Maltese Falcon”.

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