The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon



The Pequod Review:

The Maltese Falcon is far and away Dashiell Hammett's finest book, a hard-boiled noir with an ingenious plot and such perfect dialogue that much of it was transferred word-for-word into the famous 1941 John Huston film. Originally published as a five-part serial in Black Mask, the story centers on a private detective (Sam Spade) who at the beginning of the book is hired for a job under false pretenses. Spade's partner (Archer) gets killed on an early assignment, and over the course of the novel an international cast of characters emerges, all of whom are in pursuit of a valuable falcon statue that dates back to 16th century Malta. 

Sam Spade is one of the most memorable detectives in all of crime fiction, cool and efficient but also ruthless and cynical. And Hammett's narrative has more depth than typical noirs; in one of the book's most powerful passages, Spade recounts the story of a former client:

Spade sat down in the armchair beside the table and without any preliminary, without an introductory remark of any sort, began to tell the girl about a thing that had happened some years before in the Northwest. He talked in a steady matter-of-fact voice that was devoid of emphasis or pauses, though now and then he repeated a sentence slightly rearranged, as if it were important that each detail be related exactly as it had happened...

"A man named Flitcraft had left his real estate office, in Tacoma, to go to lunch one day and had never returned. He did not keep an engagement to play golf at four that afternoon, though he had taken the initiative in making the engagement less than half an hour before he went out to lunch. His wife and children never saw him again. His wife and he were supposed to be on the best of terms. He had two children, boys, one five and the other three. He owned his house in a Tacoma suburb, a new Packard, and the rest of the appurtenances of successful American living...

"Here's what happened to him. Going to lunch he passed an office-building that was being put up -- just the skeleton. A beam or something fell eight or ten stories down and smacked the sidewalk alongside him. It brushed pretty close to him, but didn't touch him, though a piece of the sidewalk was chipped off and flew up and hit his cheek. It only took a piece of skin off, but he still had the scar when I saw him. He rubbed it with his finger -- well, affectionately -- when he told me about it. He was scared stiff of course, he said, but he was more shocked than really frightened. He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.

"Flitcraft had been a good citizen and a good husband and father, not by any outer compulsion, but simply because he was a man most comfortable in step with his surroundings. He had been raised that way. The people he knew were like that. The life he knew was a clean, orderly, sane, responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things. He, the good citizen-husband-father, could be wiped out between office and restaurant by the accident of a falling beam. He knew then that men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them.

"It was not, primarily, the injustice of it that disturbed him: he accepted that after the first shock. What disturbed him was the discovery that in sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step, and not in step, with life. He said he knew before he had gone twenty feet from the fallen beam that he would never know peace until he had adjusted himself to this new glimpse of life. By the time he had eaten his lunch he had found his means of adjustment. Life could be ended for him at random by a falling beam: he would change his life at random by simply going away. He loved his family, he said, as much as he supposed was usual, but he knew he was leaving them adequately provided for, and his love for them was not of the sort that would make absence painful.

"He went to Seattle that afternoon," Spade said, "and from there by boat to San Francisco. For a couple of years he wandered around and then drifted back to the Northwest, and settled in Spokane and got married. His second wife didn't look like the first, but they were more alike than they were different. You know, the kind of women that play fair games of golf and bridge and like new salad recipes. He wasn't sorry for what he had done. It seemed reasonable enough to him. I don't think he even knew he had settled back naturally in the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma. But that's the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling."

This is a masterpiece of hard-boiled detective fiction. Highly recommended.