I’m a fan of film noir. For my money, it doesn’t get much better than Fred MacMurray “Hey, Baby”-ing Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity or Humphrey Bogart talking tough in The Maltese Falcon. But even though I’m a fan of the detective film and I love to read, I had yet to pick up anything by Dashiell Hammett, the master of the hard-boiled detective novel. Time to remedy that, I decided.
The Maltese Falcon is the story of archetypal detective Sam Spade who, along with his partner Miles Archer, is hired by a beautiful and vulnerable woman to follow a man the woman says has run off with her sister. Spade and Archer immediately recognize that there is more to the woman’s story than she claims, but the money is good so they go along. When Archer is killed on a stakeout, Spade becomes embroiled in a hunt for a priceless treasure and a complicated series of alliances where nobody is immune to betrayal.
Having seen the movie many times, I was familiar with the plot, which drives forward at a comfortable clip and which, it turns out, was faithfully represented on the big screen. There are enough twists and reveals to keep a fan of detective fiction happy, and some good melodrama to boot. Hammet’s writing is very. . . well, basic. It’s direct and unadorned; maybe hard-boiled is an appropriate description. That isn’t a criticism; the understated style is consistent with the mood spun by this genre. As in the film, the characters of Cairo and Gutman (famously played on screen by Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet) are engaging–criminals that you can’t help liking for their brashness. I was curious about how the novel would improve upon what I consider to be the one flaw in the film–the character of Bridget O’Shaughnessy. It’s not that I think Mary Astor wasn’t attractive enough to lure in both Spade and Archer, she just seemed so very bland. Then I read the book, and the character was . . . still pretty bland. Oh well.
The Maltese Falcon is a fun read, and mystery fans should definitely invest in some Dashiell Hammett. I recommend curling up with this book next to a fire and with some hot tea. Dark, stormy night optional.