Book Review: The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese FalconThe Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm reading this as part of the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge, hosted by Books and Chocolate. The Maltese Falcon was my choice for the classic crime story, fiction or non-fiction category. Crime novels are not my preferred genre, but I've always wanted to read The Maltese Falcon; published in 1930, it set the standard for the classic hard-boiled detective novel. This novel has also been mentioned in quite a few of my books on fiction-writing, usually as an example of classic genre fiction, but also in the chapters on point of view. More on that below.

The book's main character is Sam Spade, a detective in 1920s San Francisco. He runs a detective agency with his partner, Miles Archer. The novel begins with a Miss Wonderly asking for help shadowing a man named Thursby ... and what follows are several murders, a half-dozen or so new characters, and the search for a rare sculpture of a bird, the "Maltese falcon" of the title. The story is told using the dramatic point of view, where we can read the dialogue, see the characters faces and body language, and follow them from hotel to alley to home ... but we don't get their thoughts. We can only infer what they might be thinking based on the narrator's descriptions and the characters' dialogue. This is a challenge because Spade appears to be a master of hiding his true thoughts. Most of the other characters are liars as well.

No spoilers here, other than that the well-crafted book has a pretty suspenseful and satisfying ending. I recommend it to others who enjoy crime fiction and who like reading the classics in any field.

Here are a few things I did like about the book:
  • I stayed interested. When reading, I never had the desire to put the book down and read something else.
  • It was fun reading the original hard-boiled detective novel and seeing the cliches before they became cliches.
  • There were some great one-liners. Here are a few. They are copied and pasted from Rotten Tomatoes, so I don't know how accurate they are. I couldn't underline anything in my copy, as I borrowed it from the library.

Sam Spade (to Joel Cairo): Sam Spade: When I slap you, you'll take it and like it.

Gutman (to Wilmer, whom he's about to hand over to Spade as the "fall guy" in partial exchange for the priceless Maltese Falcon): I couldn't be fonder of you if you were my own son. But, well, if you lose a son, it's possible to get another. There's only one Maltese Falcon.

Spade to O'Shaughnessy: We didn't exactly believe your story, Miss O'Shaughnessy. We believed your 200 dollars. I mean, you paid us more than if you had been telling us the truth, and enough more to make it all right.

Joel Cairo: You always have such a smooth explanation.
Sam Spade: What to you want me to do, learn to stutter?

Sam Spade (to his secretary, Effie Perine): You're a good man, sister.
My library copy. My daughter was very confused when, in the middle of the book, I claimed I was finished.

As I read over these quotes, I can't help but think that this book, with its dramatic POV, could very well been written as a play or a screenplay ... which it eventually was. I'm looking forward to seeing the movie (1941), starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor. (I'm as behind on my classic novels as I am my classic movies.)

Now, for a  few things I wasn't so crazy about:
  • I had a hard time following things. New characters seemed to walk in out of nowhere, and I felt a little lost trying to figure out who was who, and who was on who's side. I guess that's part of the appeal of a novel like this, but I found it frustrating.
  • Dramatic/third-person objective POV - I want to know what characters are thinking. We get lots of great descriptions of people's faces and body language, and there's plenty of dialogue, but the reader is in the dark as to exactly what is going on in the mind of Sam Spade, or Brigid O'Shaunnesey, or anyone else. All we get are facial expressions that may or may not offer insight.
  • I didn't particularly like the characters - This is probably due to the POV used. I want to connect to a character, and that just wasn't going to happen with his novel.
I'm glad I read the book because now I can say I've read it. And like I said, I'm looking forward to the movie ... and to reading a classic that pulls me in emotionally!

Comments

Debbie V. said…
Good honest review - the quotes made me smile. especially the one about learning to stutter :)
Thanks for using the pros and cons format - that helps me a lot.
I've never seen the movie or read the book - and I probably won't so it's good to get an unbiased view of a "cult" classic. Like you, I like to know what characters are thinking.

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