Trendsetting at the time, but now seems a little dated and overrated

This is my review of The Maltese Falcon (Read a Great Movie) by Dashiell Hammett.

Private detective Sam Spade’s assignment to track a man on behalf of an alluring female client becomes a murder case in which the police regard Spade as a possible suspect. It soon becomes clear that the underlying driving force is the struggle to possess a priceless antique – the Maltese falcon of the title.

Although the name Sam Spade inevitably summons up an image of Humphrey Bogart, the opening paragraph gives a very different picture of a man with yellow-grey eyes (Dashiell Hammett was very keen on striking eye colour) whose features follow a "v-shaped motif", giving the impression of "a blond satan". It is also misleading that he reminds one of Philip Marlowe, since the latter was in fact a later creation, inspired by Raymond Chandler’s admiration for Dashiell Hammett.

Spade lacks Marlowe’s wry humour, and his coldness is emphasised by the fact we cannot know what he is really thinking, since he is described in the third person, always viewed externally. He comes across as an unappealing character: his sexism and homophobia may be accepted as the widely held attitudes of 1920s America, but he is also cynical, callous, and casually brutal. Spade displays no grief when his business partner Archer is gunned down, one of his first acts being to get his business nameplate altered. He strings Archer’s widow along when, having conducted an adulterous affair with Spade, she expects him to marry her. His loyal assistant Effie is shamelessly exploited, rewarded with affection he seems able to turn on like a tap. If a criminal gets up his nose, he is liable to beat him up with over-zealous sadism. Admittedly, he on more than one occasion gets his come-uppance. To achieve his ends, he is prepared to lie, bully, blackmail and bargain. He is prepared to fraternise with crooks to such a degree that the reader is uncertain as to his honesty, although his persistence, shrewdness and powers of deduction are not in doubt.

Perhaps I have read too many American crime novels to appreciate fully what is clearly a groundbreaking work, since its publication in 1930. Born in 1894, Hammett displays a literary style with elements of classical fiction but he also foreshadows the spate of novels about real ordinary people, some "low-life", criminals on the make, others simply struggling to survive in a seedy urban underworld. Chandler describes the author himself as “spare, frugal and hardboiled” and Hammett clearly drew on his own experience as a Pinkerton detective, one of a group of men infamous as strike breakers and union busters.

I like the vivid sense of place with the precise descriptions of the San Francisco streets, and fatty food bolted down at all times of day in cheap diners. After a long, somewhat implausible scene in which farce trumps suspense, the short novel ends fairly abruptly on an unexpected, surprisingly subtle (in view of some previous ham), suitably ambiguous but also rather sad note.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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