Somehow I’ve been entirely innocent of detective novels, though I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve seen of the genre on film; I loved [film: The Big Heat] and [film: The Big Sleep], for instance. But somehow I’ve never seen [film: The Maltese Falcon] on film, even though I love Humphrey Bogart and have long been told that the movie is a must-see. So when my friend Dan Milstein emailed me to say that the book has some of the best dialogue he’s ever read *ever*, I had to pick it up.
It doesn’t disappoint. Actually, maybe there’s one disappointment, namely that I have no choice but to envision Bogart in the role of Sam Spade. Spade, if you’re not aware, is the prototypical (I wonder if he actually *is* the prototype) private detective. He’s practically a rock moving through the world: he’s entirely self-sufficient, impermeable to outside influences of any kind, and keeps his own council. The reader is just as uncertain as any of the characters about what drives him. Consequently, from moment to moment you have no idea what he’s going to do. But you can be sure that he’s never going to lose his cool. He’ll never strike anyone in anger, because it’s not clear that he ever gets angry. He’s cool as a cucumber, always plotting his next move. He’s always one step ahead of the bad guys. You know that everything will be wrapped up at the end with a nice bow, and that Spade’s hands will remain perfectly clean.
I used to frown on this sort of genre, because it’s very formulaic. Nowadays I’m inclined to believe that most popular entertainment (some of which deserves to be called “art,” some of which doesn’t) is formulaic, and that most innovation comes within formulae. You know a lot of things already about detective novels and movies. There’s going to be a drop-dead gorgeous dame who’s going to double-cross the hero, possibly before triple-crossing the bad guys and redeeming herself. All the women will be straight out of Hitchcock: bombshell seductresses who are strong-willed right up to the moment that they swoon into the protagonist’s arms. There are going to be many reversals of fortune. There’s going to be a MacGuffin that everyone’s going to be obsessed with chasing. You can’t be sure that the police are good guys. Finally, the character of the private dick himself will be sweet and sensitive beneath a surly exterior. So the plot is already very constrained; it takes a brilliant writer to keep the story gripping even within those constraints.
[book: The Maltese Falcon] is brilliant indeed — gripping and intensely readable the whole way through. The plot is basically incidental, but let’s summarize it anyway. Right from the start, the beautiful dame, a Miss Wonderly, is waiting for him in his office. She tells Spade that her 17-year-old sister has run off with a man named Floyd Thursby, and that Wonderly has a date with him that very night to convince him to bring her sister back. She asks Spade and his partner to follow Thursby, perchance to find her sister and bring her back before Wonderly’s parents find out what’s happened.
Spade’s partner is dead within the first eight pages, Thursby’s dead within 19, Wonderly’s name isn’t actually Wonderly, we never hear again about the sister, and everything is actually baroquely related to a priceless antiquity that gives the book its name. I think I’ll stop there; the great joy in this novel is finding out how everything unwinds and how Spade navigates it all without getting the slightest bit of muck on his suit.
It’s a sheer joy, and Hammett is a superb prose stylist. His writing is as deliberate and forceful as Spade: we picture Hammett walking into a room, quickly sketching out the people and objects within it, and chopping the dialogue out of blocks of marble with a few clean hits on the chisel. All the lines are clean and neat, and we picture every scene perfectly with seemingly no effort on Hammett’s part.
I foresee myself developing a Hammett-and-Chandler obsession.
__P.S.__: As you might be able to tell from the cover photo at right, [book: The Maltese Falcon] comes from a collection of three novels in a single Everyman edition. I’ll review them individually here.