Review of The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammet
Rating : 5/5
Since my childhood, I was a fan of mysteries and detective stories, starting from The Famous Five and Nancy Drew all the way up to Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle. Yet, I had never before heard about Dashiell Hammet or any of his work. I was first introduced to his name while watching a rerun of the movie Minority Report. Yes, it is a bit strange! On reading more about the movie, I came to know that the precogs were actually named after three of the famous crime writers – Dashiell Hammet, Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. Reading more about Dashiell Hammett, I was very intrigued and decided to read a few of his novels. This was way back in 2011 and after six years I finally made time to read “The Maltese Falcon” by Dashiell Hammet. Definitely the longest a book has been in my TBR list!
Hammet is credited with the introduction of hard-boiled detective fiction through Sam Spade, a private investigator who wriggles out of any corner with his wit and smartness. Sam Spade was introduced in The Maltese Falcon and was an instant hit. Hammet’s own words about Sam Spade shows how this hero was thought out and conceived:
“Spade has no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been and in their cockier moments thought they approached. For your private detective does not — or did not ten years ago when he was my colleague — want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander or client” – Hammet about Spade.
The novel starts when a client, Ms. Wonderly, appears at the office of Sam Spade and Miles Archer with a request to track Mr. Thursby with whom her sister has eloped. Spade and Archer are impressed with the money she pays and Archer decides to follow up on it. Soon, both Archer and Thursby are found dead and Sam Spade finds himself on the wrong side of the law (we soon learn that this is not something unusual). Yet, things become more complicated when the timid Ms. Wonderly turns out to be Ms. O’ Shaughnessy, an accomplice of Thursby. The mystery further deepens with the introduction of the The Maltese Falcon and the different set of people who are in hot pursuit of it including Joel Cairo and the mysterious Mr. G. If Sam Spade has to come out unscathed, he has to retrieve the Maltese Falcon and also prove himself innocent in the murders of Thursby and Archer.
This detective novel clearly stands out from the Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle mysteries thanks to the style of writing and the protagonist. Sam Spade is never a goody-two shoes and is gifted with keen observation and instincts. He is unscrupulous with his own set of warped moral code. At the beginning of the novel itself, Hammet kills off Archer, a long term partner of Spade. The regular reaction of emotional exuberance which I have grown to expect in novels in similar situations was conspicuous in its absence. Spade takes this complication in his stride and appears completely impervious to this situation. With this one incident itself we learn a lot about Spade – his calculative mind, levelheadedness and self-preservation. Spade do not think twice about his actions and do not even hesitate the slightest even if he has to do unlawful actions.
Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade
The novel is in the third person narrative, hence none of the inner thoughts of the characters are available for the readers. In the first half, we are bombarded with lots of information regarding the case and the suspects yet nothing paints a complete picture and we have no idea as to who is reliable. Hence, just like Spade, the readers also have to make their way in the dark trusting their instincts. Only towards the finale are the known facts linked together and sorted for the truth with the motives of each character made clear.
The rest of the characters in the novel are also as engaging as Sam Spade. Ms. O’ Shaughnessy is the ultimate femme fatale, transforming from a helpless client to lover and to her actual negative character. She acts naive and coy on the outside but uses her sexuality as a well-honed weapon. Equally evil are Mr. G, the ringleader of operations along with his assistants Joel Cairo and Wilmer. All of them try to corner Spade and retrieve the Maltese Falcon. Although evil, I felt a little sympathetic towards Joel Cairo who seems to get mercilessly defeated every time in front of Spade’s ingenuity. There is also a small hint of homosexuality between Cairo and Wilmer. Mr. G, although written as a formidable opponent slightly fell short in his creepiness. Reading the novel, I never felt like Mr. G had an upper hand on Spade. Even if he had any upper hand, Spade’s casual demeanor took all sense of urgency away from the readers.
This book is the father of all noir detective stories and Spade is the character on which all the present day smart and witty detectives are based. The novel is fast paced with an excellent plot and diverse characters. The plot is also original and inventive with great suspense. This is a must read for all lovers of detective stories.