The Original

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

While this book is known as the benchmark hard-boiled detective novel, which established p.i. Sam Spade as a cultural icon, I find Brigid O’Shaughnessy the most interesting character in this novel. I first read this book while in library school, as I was just returning to the joys of mystery reading. Now, reading it for the second time, over a decade later, knowing how it would turn out allowed me to look a little more closely at what Hammett was doing in this book. Spoiler alert: Knowing in advance that the damsel (dame?) in distress is actually a villain transformed the way I read this book. The fact that Hammett created such an intriguing female character at the same time he invented a new mystery subgenre almost pardons him for the way Spade and the other male characters treat women. Almost.

And, granted, Spade himself is quite fascinating. He’s vaguely despicable (what kind of person doesn’t even feel a bit of a qualm over his business partner’s death?), yet he lives by a code that results in some sort of justice in the end. At our recent book club meeting, one of my friends pinpointed the essence of the book: while the Maltese falcon causes people to lie, cheat, steal, and kill in their efforts to possess this priceless relic, the true mystery here lies in the characters themselves. In addition to Hammett’s skill at creating compelling characters (likeable though they’re not), I admire his writing style. His use of language still feels fresh to me, even though it’s been mimicked, updated, and parodied by others for years now.

A couple of other observations: I’d forgotten that The Maltese Falcon was told from a third person point of view. I found this absolutely fascinating, given that the p.i.-as-first-person-narrator is now a standard feature of hardboiled detective novels. In The Maltese Falcon, obviously, that would not do—because we need Spade to be inscrutable. And the other thing I realized anew is that the article I read back in library school, in which a writer described the current crop of private investigators in novels as “soft-boiled,” really hits the mark. Sam Spade was a whole different creature from today’s gruff, rule-breaking private investigators (who usually have at least one friend, often seem to be fitness fanatics, and rarely stray very far into the Dark Side). I’m almost tempted to feel sorry for the guy. Or… maybe not.