Although I read Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” about 11-13 years ago, I somehow didn’t read Dashiell Hammett’s 1929/30 novel “The Maltese Falcon” until shortly before writing this review. How could I have been so foolish? Seriously, this is one of those books that I should have read a very long time ago.
So, with that said, let’s take a look at “The Maltese Falcon”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.
The story begins in late 1920s San Francisco, where a private detective called Sam Spade has a new client. His client, Miss Wonderley, is worried about her sister – who has run off with a man called Floyd Thursby and won’t talk to her. She suspects that Thursby is up to no good and is willing to pay Sam handsomely in order to investigate. Astonished by the money, Sam puts his right-hand man Miles on the case and asks him to follow Thursby.
However, later that night, Miles is found dead. Thanks to rumours about an affair between Sam and Miles’ wife, Sam falls under suspicion. Although a few of the local detectives take Sam’s side in the matter – Sam realises that, in order to clear his name properly, he needs to find the real killer. This, of course, will plunge him deep into a web of criminal intrigue…..
One of the first things that I will say is that this book is that it is to modern detective fiction what “Blade Runner” (1982) is to sci-fi cinema. If this novel didn’t invent the “film noir” genre, then it certainly did a lot to define, inspire and popularise it.
Just like how numerous science fiction films have been inspired by the masterpiece that is “Blade Runner”, reading this novel is a perfect education about the noir genre. And “The Maltese Falcon” is as gripping and refreshing to read in the 2010s as it probably was during the late 1920s. It is a timeless masterpiece. But, why?
First of all, it crams more detail, atmosphere and complex plotting into 213 pages than many modern writers would struggle to include in 400. It tells a tight, focused story that plunges the reader into a fascinatingly grim world of intrigue and danger. Although the story has many sub-plots and details, these are all there for a good reason and there isn’t a single unnecessary detail. Unlike the slightly confusing plot of Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep”, this novel will reward you if you carefully keep track of every detail. Everything happens for a reason.
Plus, almost every chapter ending and chapter beginning is used in an expert way. Like a lot of older books, this novel also has actual chapter titles too – which hint intriguingly about what is going to happen. Seriously, I miss chapter titles.
Secondly, this is one of the most human novels that I have read in a long time. Like with great films such as “Blade Runner”, this novel is an examination of the murkier sides of human nature. Not only do the characters all have well-defined motivations, but they also come across as realistic people too.
For example, although Sam may be the protagonist of the story, he’s not exactly an altruistic crusader for justice. He’s a detective because it pays well and because a rough, mean man like him probably wouldn’t do well in any other lawful occupation. Yes, there are some glimmers of honour and goodness in him, but he’s the kind of rough and dubious character that the world he lives in has turned him into. This novel is a timeless novel because it is a novel about human nature.
There’s a brilliant passage about a third of the way through this novel where Sam tells another character about a case that he once worked on. In this case, he’d been hired to track down a man who had abandoned his family. When Sam finally caught up with the man, he told Sam why he left. After narrowly escaping death from a steel girder that had been dropped from a building site, the man realises that the world is random and cruel. He realises that death could lurk around any corner and that he had to find some way to adjust to life again. He needed to go off and find meaning in life, even if this meant leaving everyone he loved. Then, he just settled into a routine again somewhere else. This is one of the most realistic, profound and deeply human things that I’ve ever read. It is also a manifesto, of sorts, for how the noir genre differs from traditional detective fiction.
Thirdly, this novel is gloriously atmospheric too. This novel is filled with carefully-chosen descriptions and details that plunge you into a much greater “world” than is shown in the story. Like how “Blade Runner” conjures up a giant futuristic mega-city from just a few rooms and a couple of streets, this novel gives you an in-depth glimpse into 1920s San Francisco from just a few carefully-chosen details and locations. There are so many fascinating quirks and details about this story’s historical “world” that really bring it to life.
For example, one of the small details that amused and surprised me was that a couple of the main characters roll their own cigarettes. This initially reminded me more of ’00s Britain than 1920s America, until I realised that not only was this possibly due to the poverty of the Great Depression but also because commercialism (eg: advertising, mass production etc..) was less of a potent force in America back then than it would later be. And all of this from just brief descriptions of people rolling cigarettes. This is what I mean by the novel’s “world” being much larger than what is shown on the page.
Fourthly, the novel’s narration has aged really well. Yes, if you’re used to modern writing styles, it may take you a little while to get used to the fact that Hammett describes everything in a little bit more detail. But, this novel is one of the most clearly-written early 20th century novels that I’ve read. Even the story’s old-timey historical slang usually makes sense from the context it is used in. And, for a ninety-year old novel, it almost reads like something that could have been written today. Plus, surprisingly, this novel has as much sex, violence and profanity as you would expect from a modern novel. Although this is often implied rather than shown, it comes across as remarkably modern for a novel from 1929/30.
Yes, of course, there are a few parts of the story that haven’t aged well. But, surprisingly, this 1920s/30s novel is actually less “politically incorrect” than some 1950s-70s novels I’ve read. There’s little to no racist language and the novel presents both men and women in a cruelly cynical, but relatively equal, way (eg: they’re both shown to be capable of good and evil, they both suffer and perpetrate acts of violence, they’re both shown to have emotions, they’re both shown to be stifled by traditional expectations etc…). Although this novel does contain some homophobia, this is relatively subtle when compared to some stories from 20-50 years later. So, yes, this old novel isn’t quite as dated as you might expect.
All in all, this novel is a masterpiece. It is as gripping and atmospheric today as it probably was in 1929. In just 213 short pages, it not only tells a complex (but focused) story that is filled with characters who seem real and alive, but it also gives you an in-depth glimpse into a fascinatingly dubious part of history. It is a “pulp” novel that says more about human nature than most “literary” novels could ever dream of. My only major criticism is that there isn’t a sequel to it. Then, again, this novel is one of a kind.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a solid five.