Jamelah Reads the Classics: The Maltese Falcon

Note: For the first time in the entire two-something-year history of Jamelah Reads the Classics, I am reading books out of order. According to my list, I should’ve kicked things off with To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, but I’m not because I recently finished this one and I want to write about it right now. So I have to save Virginia Woolf for next time. If any are necessary, you have my apologies.

Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon is the detective novel, a classic noir, and a hell of a delicious read. It’s also short, which is always appreciated, though in this case, I found that I wanted it to be longer, not because it was lacking in any way, but because I wanted to keep reading it even after I ran out of pages. There are two film versions of the novel, with the Humphrey Bogart version being the definitive classic. So classic a version, in fact, that Bogart is synonymous with Sam Spade (I guess when he’s not busy being synonymous with Casablanca‘s Rick Blaine, that is). Bogart was so entirely Sam Spade in my mind that I was completely surprised when I opened the book and started reading:

“Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down — from high flat temples — in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.”

Not really Bogart at all, then.

The Maltese Falcon centers on Sam Spade, a private detective in San Francisco, who gets pulled into the drama surrounding a priceless bird. Condensed into a sentence, it doesn’t sound so interesting, but then, just as it is with the book itself, nothing is as simple as it seems on the surface. Instead of wasting time with exposition (Hammett is wise enough to trust his readers to be able to keep up with the story as it happens, which is nice, because I hate it when writers go on about things I could figure out on my own), the novel’s action begins on the very first page and doesn’t let up until the last line. But it’s not the kind of action that one might find in a mystery novel of the typical modern bestseller type, and is instead of a smarter, seething, simmering variety. It is a novel of shadowy people with shadowy motives (but then, it is a noir), and it uncurls beautifully, like a solitary plume of silvery cigarette smoke in a room lit only by a single bare bulb.

I haven’t enjoyed reading a book as much as this one in a long time. There are a lot of things I read that I may end up liking (enthusiastically or grudgingly) when I’m finished with them, but when I’m in the middle of them, they often feel like work, and I don’t necessarily look forward to curling up with them at the end of a long day. But this book was enjoyable, entertaining, and I never once felt like reading it was making me dumber somehow (as I sometimes feel when I read books for their entertainment value). Smart and fun. What a concept. Hammett’s prose is tight and spare and unflinching, keeping things moving along smoothly from beginning to end. To put it simply, The Maltese Falcon is fucking cool.

4 Responses

  1. Good choice!Hammett also
    Good choice!

    Hammett also created Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man, though they were a bit different than the film version. Also must reads from Hammett are The Dain Curse, Red Harvest, and The Continental Op. The Continental Op was the quintessential hard-boiled private eye. In short, if you want your noir straight, no chaser, go with Hammett.

  2. Here’s lookin’ at you, kidI
    Here’s lookin’ at you, kid

    I didn’t realize Sam Spade was such a v-headed bastard.

    Great review. I especially like your description of the plot, “…it uncurls beautifully, like a solitary plume of silvery cigarette smoke in a room lit only by a single bare bulb.”

    A classy review from a classy dame.

  3. book and photoThis has made
    book and photo

    This has made want to run out and find the book and
    see the photo of the cigarette smoke

  4. I think you got the wrong
    I think you got the wrong Bogart movie, Bill.

    I don’t have any favorite lines from Maltese Falcon, but my favorite part is when Sam Spade gets the Fat Man’s button man all steamed up by trying to convince the others to make him the fall guy. You can see that Spade knows it won’t happen — he’s just having fun.

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