If you're a fan of The Maltese Falcon (and why wouldn't you be?) there are a bunch of other great articles in this series, from Lawrence Block, Steve Cavanagh and Barry Forshaw. Go check them out.
Original and Best: Mason Cross on The Maltese FalconThe Murder Room, March 2015
Before Philip Marlowe, there was Sam Spade. Before Sam Spade? Well, before Dashiell Hammett came up with Spade, this particular cultural archetype simply didn’t exist.
Spade made his only appearance in a full-length novel in The Maltese Falcon, one of the set texts in the crime fiction curriculum. There had been other gumshoes in the pulps before, of course, but none quite like this. Spade’s quick wit and moral complexity set him apart from all other comers. The verisimilitude of Hammett’s writing helped a lot too, drawing on his experience of working for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. In Hammett’s own words, from his introduction to the 1934 edition of his masterpiece, The Maltese Falcon:
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 . . . 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.
I first read the novel while at university, and although I gravitated more towards Raymond Chandler’s prose, Hammett’s writing also had much to teach me, both in its economy of language and the moral ambiguity of the characters. There are two main characters in the book: Spade and the femme fatale, a woman who goes by many names, but eventually settles on Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Neither is quite what they seem. Although Spade is the protagonist, Hammett keeps his character’s thoughts from us, merely hinting at them in the way he answers a phone call, or rolls a cigarette.
The Maltese Falcon has been so referenced, pastiched and ripped off over the years that it almost reads like an extremely well-executed pastiche itself. All of the classic tropes of the noir thriller are here: the convoluted murder mystery, the McGuffin everybody’s after, the scheming femme fatale, the murdered partner, the exasperated cops, and, of course, Hammett’s prototype tough-talking PI.
But Hammett’s book rises above the sea of imitators for two notable reasons. First, it’s just so well written. Hammett was perhaps less poetic than Chandler (no bishops kicking holes in any stained-glass windows here), but he managed to make the genre his own with his understated observations and terse dialogue, such as when the cops bluster that Spade can’t stay just ahead of trouble for ever, and he coolly shoots back, ‘Stop me when you can’. Or when Spade sums up a moral code that even he does not fully understand with the simple statement: ‘When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it’.
The second reason is the ending. Without giving anything away, the book’s climax seems to be settling into a satisfactory, old-fashioned denouement where the characters sit in a room and talk the mystery to a conclusion. Then, in the last few pages, Hammett hits us with a doozy of a reversal. Suffice to say, the real mystery of the piece is Sam Spade, not the falcon or the whodunit.
The climax is an emotional gut punch for Spade and the reader alike. You close the book realising that you never really knew the man in whose company you’ve spent the previous two hundred pages. And you realise why The Maltese Falcon has endured as a classic of crime fiction.