Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Maltese Falcon is as hardboiled as it gets

If there is a such a thing as a perfectly-written crime novel, you'd be hard pressed to find a more worthy recipient than The Maltese Falcon. More than eight decades after its original release, in 1930, the book remains a true classic in the genre of hardboiled crime fiction.

Written by Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon is a well-plotted, well-written detective story that has been enjoyed by generations of readers, and inspired generations of writers as well. The book has been adapted twice for the big screen, most notably a 1941 film noir, starring Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre. It has spawned several TV parodies as well.

There are so many aspects of The Maltese Falcon that make this a delightful read. The precise use of language, the clever plotting, the subtle humour, the dingy San Francisco streets of the '20s and the lowly band of characters all make this a delightful and entertaining story, which stays with you long after you've finished reading it.

The main protagonist is Sam Spade, a cynical, cigarette-rolling private detective whose work partner, Miles Archer, has just been murdered. Some believe that Sam might have had a hand in Archer's death because of his affair with Archer's wife, Iva. The police question Spade about his potential involvement in the murder and believe him to be a suspect.

The death of Spade's partner triggers a series of events involving an amusing cast of characters, some of whom are intent on obtaining a rare and priceless figurine/bird. Among those wanting to find this bird are Brigid O'Shaughnessy, an attractive and duplicitous blond who tries to win the affections of Spade; and Casper Gutman, a heavy-set and charismatic art collector who has been trying to acquire the bird for 17 years.

Readers must remember that Hammett wrote this novel in the 1920s, when social attitudes about gender equality were much different than they are today. In The Maltese Falcon, Spade views women as little more than sex objects, and his actions towards them are mistrustful and misogynistic, as illustrated in this scene in which O'Shaughnessy is literally throwing herself at Spade:
Their faces were a few inches apart. Spade took her face between his hands and he kissed her mouth roughly and contemptuously. Then he sat back and said: 'I'll think it over." His face was hard and furious.
At many times while reading The Maltese Falcon, I felt myself cringe at scenes like this one. I know Hammett was writing for a different audience, but that doesn't make Spades' demeaning attitudes and actions towards women any more palatable. Indeed, they don't call this hard-boiled fiction for nothing.

When it comes to describing his characters, Hammett pulls no punches and has no qualms about calling a spade a spade (pun intended). Here is the author's no-holds-barred description of Gutman when we first meet this character:
The fat man was flabbily fat with bulbous pink cheeks and lips and chins and neck, with a great soft egg of a belly that was all his torso, and pendant cones for arms and legs. As he advanced to meet Spade all his bulbs rose and shook and fell separately with each step, in the manner of clustered soap-bubbles not yet released from the pipe through which they had been blown.
Hammett rarely misses an opportunity to call attention to Gutman's obesity, frequently referring to him as "the fat man." In Hammett's hands, such descriptions serve both as comic relief and the advancement of plot. Gutman remains a sly and calculating character in appearance, mannerisms and speech, and you know that he'll say and do anything to win the bird. That's part of what makes him so likeable and endearing.

The story advances with a steady and sometimes quickened pace, and with each chapter, readers feel closer to discovering the true motivations of the characters and the mystery of the rare figurine. Hammett does an exceptional job tossing all of the plot twists into the air, juggling them for our amusement, and making sense of them at the end.

There is a reason why The Maltese Falcon is still deemed such a pioneering work of fiction, decades after its original publication. For those who haven't had read it, you're missing a unique reading experience. 

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