Published on August 28th, 2013 | by Michaela Buckley0
The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett
Written by Dashiell Hammett and published 1930, The Maltese Falcon started originally as a serial in a magazine, it has become known since as one of the greatest novels of all time and has had numerous adaptations to film.
The novel popularised the hardboiled noir-style of detective fiction and as such can be credited to inspiring a whole host of writing and particularly television like CSI since.
The novel’s main character is Sam Spade, a man whose introduction featured a lengthy paragraph or two concerning his ‘V’-shaped appearance and lank form, Spade is a private detective for hire and is in a partnership with a Miles Archer.
It’s here where I have to mention about the book’s sexism. It’s pretty impossible to ignore, as it is ingrained in the detective genre. The first example is of the secretary hired by Spade & Archer, Effie Perine. She is portrayed as a naive bint who has the hots for the main character and allows herself to be called angel and hip-handled nigh constantly. This sort of behaviour is in no means sexist if in isolation, however the whole novel is rife with this kind of thing, where the only time a female displays any kind of intelligence, she is made out to be some kind of hateful witch.
Soon a mysterious lady enters the office and asks for help with a problem she is having with her sister and some man that has taken her. The two detectives exchange some unwitty chauvinist banter about whose she is to be claimed before deciding to help her out, despite the supposed lies she was telling in the meeting.
However, disaster strikes as Archer is abruptly murdered, the man he was shadowing turns up dead and the lady client goes missing.
The novel uses a very minimalist style in order to express the plot and characters, with the novel reaching a little over 200 pages, it all feels very compact, like a story that was shortened as if after written.
At the beginning of the novel there are very straight-forward and simple descriptions for the characters, with no emotive language used to describe the characters’ appearances, nor empathetic evidence to suggest how the characters are feeling about one another nor how the reader ought to be viewing them or the situation. It’s almost like a transcript of events even with no consideration for flair or dramatic, except in its absence.
The feeling of the characters is all shown through their language and the way they are descibed as expressing their pieces. It’s almost like a play. The language is very direct, with little or no tangents and not a single cut away from the main character and his arc. In all, the whole novel felt very blunt and although successful in effect, it is not without a dry and cheap quality about it.
There are some pretty odd omissions from the novel, in that despite the attention to the heavy description of a character upon introduction, neither does Hammett describe their clothes at all nor mention their characteristics outside of a single one that he devotes himself to. In the example of the main character, it is his ‘V’ shaped features and in G, it is that he is fat.
The pace of the novel is very fast, with quick dialogue and large events unfolding in a matter of pages, Hammett doesn’t spend any more time than necessary devoting himself to the characters or his own story. The plain and open nature of the language means that all impressions are received entirely by the reader, giving the plot an open-ended quality.
I guess that cat’s out of the bag about the ending of the novel. Brigett is named and shamed as the one who killed Archer at the start, she uses her wiles to persuade Spade into not handing her in but he doesn’t relent, noting a number of different and some flaky reasons why he shouldn’t, the main being that she is a user that wouldn’t hesitate to do the same to him. However when despair of the situation overcomes her, she is still able to care about him and not attempt to take him down with her or give him any grief. It’s hard to push the evil lady thing when you aren’t willing to write it into the character fully.
Although the novel feels a little… bare, it is easy to see why translations to the silver screen have become successful. The only way to move the fast talking aesthetic and the story dynamic to the screen would have been to make it over-stylised and by the sounds of it, this is much more impacting than the cold writing of Hammett.
In all, the hype for the novel and its status on the top 100 lists I believe is very overstated. The writing style isn’t refined enough to warrant lacking any significant detail and there are numerous issues with story and characters that are brushed under the carpet. Even for its time, the plot line and the themes feel like they were dated and couldn’t have possibly gripped anyone, however it’s a very short read and it will help to clarify some of the modern story tropes we see in television and literature today.