07 February 2009

Top mysteries challenge review: The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

This is the second Hammett novel I read for the top mysteries challenge, which leaves two.

Besides reading the book I watched the movie, which is the most faithful book to film adaptation I have seen.

Year of publication: 1930
Genre: Hardboiled detective story
Type of mystery: Theft, murder
Type of investigator: Private detective
Setting & time: San Francisco, USA, contemporary to writing

Story:
A woman approaches private detective Sam Spade and his partner, Archer, with an apparently simple request: to tail someone. But Archer is killed on the job and Spade is approached by two more people and asked to find a valuable statuette, the Maltese Falcon. The woman turns out to be after the same thing. What follows is a merry-go-round of ruthless lies, intrigue and murder.

Discussion and review:
Sam Spade is one of the most famous detectives in the history of detective fiction, because he was a perfect prototype of the tough guy detective who used brawn as much as brain to solve his cases, took no shit from anyone and lived by a threadbare code of honour that didn’t stop him from lying and double-crossing to get what he was after. His predecessors, such as Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey and Hercule Poirot, had been gentlemen who played fair and used their minds. While Spade was not the first tough guy detective, he was the one in which everything came together to make a really memorable character. Of course, his portrayal by Humphrey Bogart in the 1941 film adaptation helped to anchor his fame as well, even though Bogart actually portrayed him as rather more sensitive and likeable than Hammett meant him to be. In the book, he is described in terms of being devilish, not just in appearance but in demeanor as well, and while you can't help rooting for him, it's more because he's the most honest of the characters rather than being in any way endearing.

If Spade is a prototype, then Bridget O'Shaughnessy is an archetype – a perfect femme fatale: beautiful, sexy, self-assured, charming and utterly ruthless. The rest of the main characters are all realistic and clearly drawn.

The narrative is spare and streamlined and quick-paced. The dialogue is realistic, and the story is character driven but still full of action. The falcon statuette is a perfect MacGuffin and one gets the feeling that the story is not so much a story as a chapter in the statuette’s long history, and that it will go on causing death and mayhem for a long time to come.

Rating: A perfectly balanced hard-boiled detective story with memorable characters and great twists. 5 stars.

Books left in challenge: 114

1 comment:

maxine said...

Glad you liked it. I adore Hammett- npt sure which is my favourite, but I think the Dain Curse.