This book has been on my shelf for a long time. It’s a detective novel from 1930 that originally was serialized. This means that parts of the story were originally published in a magazine or newspaper, which quite a lot of older novels were. The interesting thing about the novel is probably the author himself.
Dashiell Hammett lived a rather interesting life. He worked for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency starting at the age of 21 from 1915 until 1922. The Pinkerton National Detective Agency was a precursor to the FBI and essentially was the first Detective Agency in the USA. They foiled an assassination attempt on Abraham Lincoln, with the USA’s first female detective, Kate Warne, playing a key role in the mission. And this company created the idea of a private eye which no doubt inspired Dashiell Hammett’s works. After leaving the detective agency Dashiell Hammett joined the USA army in 1918 where he contracted the Spanish Flu . Despite having tuberculosis Hammett decided to enlist again during World War II. He shouldn’t have been able to, but like The Good Soldier Svejk he was determined to join anyway. And this time he developed COPD or emphysema. As a communist and political activist he was brought to court to testify and name other members in his group, after declining he was imprisoned and blacklisted.
The story of the Maltese Falcon is a “hard-boiled” detective story. A sub-genre of pulp fiction that Dashiell Hammett is credited with inventing.
“Hard-boiled fiction, a tough, unsentimental style of American crime writing that brought a new tone of earthy realism or naturalism to the field of detective fiction.”Britannica
So what makes a “hard-boiled” detective story? Let’s meet the main character and find out.
Sam Spade is a grimy detective. He has his own agency with his partner who he doesn’t actually like much. He knows the local police and most everyone in town but doesn’t necessarily get along with them. The police are itching to find something to pin on him. He drinks excessively and out for his pay check. Despite being written and described akin to a “blonde-devil” whose face is made up of v’s almost every woman he knows is either in a relationship with him or having mutual flirty banter. Because of his love for money and ability to play games, you never know whose side he’s on and he is a character without empathy.
So what does Sam Spade do? What is the set up to the mystery? Think classic film noir. The Maltese Falcon was made into one after all with silver screen star Humphrey Bogart playing him. We have to start with that cliche scene about a dame who walks into the detective’s office. Because that’s what happens.
A pretty woman walks into Sam Spade and his partner, Miles Archer’s office in San Francisco and asks for their help finding her little sister who she believes ran off with a man named Floyd Thursby. The man has agreed to meet her at her hotel but he keeps ignoring her about her little sister so she’d like them to follow him and find out where her sister is being kept. She offers $200. This, in today’s economy is worth about $3,117.13.
Miles Archer, make lewd motions about the woman to his partner and volunteers to take the case.
In the middle of the night Sam Spade is called by the police. Someone has murdered Miles Archer and Floyd Thursby and now he’s got to figure out why before the police try to pin it on him.
It’s interesting reading a “hard-boiled” detective novel. I grew up reading pretty much every detective novel I could get my hands on as a kid, I loved Nancy Drew, Scooby-Doo, and the Mary-kate and Ashley detective novels. Eventually, I found my way to Sherlock Holmes. It’s one of my first love genres, but I never made my way toward this sub-genre beyond the tropes and parodies in pop culture.
Did I love it? No.
But I think that’s because I didn’t like Spade. I didn’t like that every woman he came across he was squeezing their shoulders or touching their shoulders like a bad sexual harassment training video. I’m not even kidding, if there was a woman in the novel there was a 90% chance her shoulders were going to be mentioned and I just did not get it. He also wasn’t nice to almost any of them, except possibly his secretary. There’s also a lot of violence towards the gay character. I wasn’t expecting there to be one at all since it’s such an old novel. The villains in the novel are cliché and arguably nowadays harmful caricatures. As a mystery, I feel like I had an idea of where the story was going, which isn’t bad, but the true mystery was what Sam Spade was going to do or how he was going to interact with the other characters. Every time I thought he was going to do one thing he’d swerve and do something else.
I also got fairly frustrated that everyone was so cagey so clues were held off till almost the end of the book or were very few and far between.
Despite all the things I didn’t enjoy about the book it was still interesting to read what essentially inspired a new wave of detective novels and what created a style that’s so common now. Spade is, essentially an anti-hero and one of the earlier versions of this trope. And that in and of itself was quite interesting.
Want to read this book and see what a hard-boil detective novel is like? You can get it here from Bookshop which supports local bookstores and in part also support me through the affiliate link.