Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily
And finally we reach the last remaining Dashiell Hammett novel on the 1001 list. I can say, categorically, that I have enjoyed each and every one of them despite the great variance of topic and tale telling.
If you have missed them, I reviewed The Thin Man back in March and have completed the remaining three this month. That would be Red Harvest, The Glass Key and today’s review of The Maltese Falcon.
Samuel Spade and the story of the Maltese Falcon is arguably Hammett’s best known work. It certainly was to me, with The Thin Man a distant second. That could be a result of an earlier obsession with Humphrey Bogart films, of course, including the 1941 rendition of this story.
We meet Sam and his partner, Miles Archer, in their offices in San Francisco. A young woman, Miss Wonderly, comes to hire them to follow a man who has supposedly run off with her younger sister. The money is good, so they take her on. Miles, with an eye to the pretty lady, says he will do it for her and does so. Spade, on the other hand, thinks she looks like trouble.
Later that night Spade is rung by the police and told that Archer has been shot. He goes down to the scene, but appears disinterested. As the story progresses, it is clear that he is not fond of Archer and has been playing around with his wife, but he feels he owes it to his partner to find out the truth about his death.
Spade is not a particularly likeable character, is quite loose with the women in his life, but is smart, cunning and determined. Hammett’s description of him is quite telling of his character.
Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down – from high flat temples – in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.
Spade ends up in the firing line from the police investigation when not only is Miles Archer murdered, but so is the man he was tailing – on the same night.
As the story progresses we find out that Miss Wonderly is not who she says she is, nor is her non-existent runaway sister real. We find her to be Brigid O’Shaughnessy, a rather cunning liar and thief. She also is not a particularly likeable character, especially from a modern woman’s perspective. She sets her sights on Spade and embroils him in the cross and double-cross world of international thievery. Along the way we meet the wonderful cast of characters that Hammett has created; Joel Cairo, Wilmer Cook and Casper Gutman are all marvellous to read and beautifully described. I must say that although the 1941 film does not necessarily cast quite according to Hammett’s descriptions (Humphrey Bogart would need to grow another 3 or so inches to be “quite six feet tall”), they do all bring to life each of the main characters in a fair representation. So much so that whenever I read Casper Gutman’s dialogue I continually saw and heard Sydney Greenstreet‘s voice and inflection in my head.
Unlike The Thin Man, this one’s one-liners and comebacks were relatively toned down, but Spade is still prickly and quick with his words. In this instance he is facing down Lieutenant Dundy’s questioning over Archer’s death.
Placidity came back to Spade’s face and voice. He said reprovingly: “You know I can’t tell you that until I’ve talked it over with the client.”
“You’ll tell it to me or you’ll tell it in court,” Dundy said hotly. “This is murder and don’t you forget it.”
“Maybe. And here’s something for you to not forget, sweetheart. I’ll tell it or not as I damned please. It’s a long while since I burst out crying because policemen didn’t like me.”
Still the same pig-headed, gritty character as many of Hammett’s others. But a smooth ladies man with it. Or is that a heartless ladies man? You need to decide.
I have thoroughly enjoyed my time travel back to the late 1920s courtesy of Dashiell Hammett and I don’t think you will be disappointed if you choose to find one or two of his works either. The writing is good, the characters are interesting, the stories are well plotted and not obvious from start to finish. All round easy, fun reads. I’m rather sad that there are no more on the list.
Happy Reading everyone.
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