The movie ‘The Maltese Falcon’ was the first Film Noir I ever watched and the first Private Detective that I was exposed to (that wasn’t some bad satire). So when I found this novel shoved in some musty pile in Melbourne, it was like hitting the jackpot; I’ve wanted to own a copy for ages.
This is the classic hard-boiled, hard-drinking, and hard-talking private dick. It had all the elements: antagonistic police, the femme fatale, convoluted plot with double-talk, gunfights, there wasn’t a single thing missing. And of course, Sam Spade himself. First introduced to us as looking “rather pleasantly like a blond satan”, his strong moral compass in achieving justice in spite of some of his questionable actions.
Subsequently, when I was reading it, it almost felt like a cliché because these elements had been done so many times and there was nothing new about it. But it’s important to remember that Hammett didn’t just set the standard, he created it, and when you read ‘The Maltese Falcon’, you can see why. All the archetypes were so well executed that of course all other authors were falling over themselves to use them in their own fiction.
Obviously, I knew the plot of the novel prior to reading it but I still found it difficult to put the novel down; Hammett is such a talented writer but I was immensely surprised though at how close the adaptation of the movie was. The quotes, the plot, the development of the characters, it was nearly identical. In fact, there were only two scenes that did not appear in the movie: a scene where Spade tells O’Shaugnessy about an old client, and another involving Gutman’s seventeen year old daughter. The removal of both these plot points in the movie did not detract from the overall impact of the film.
I think what drew the whole plot and all the aspects together was the Maltese Falcon itself. So powerful was the hold of the Maltese Falcon over Kasper Gutman, Joel Cairo, and Brigid O’Shaugnessy, that they were all prepared to scheme, double-cross, and murder for it, driving the story. The allure of the Falcon was so strong that it caused Gutman to utter this ice cold line.
Gutman smiled benignly at him and said: ‘Well, Wilmer, I’m sorry indeed to lose you, and I want you to know that I couldn’t be fonder of you if you were my own son; but – well, by Gad! – if you lose a son it’s possible to get another – and there’s only one Maltese falcon.’
If I hadn’t believed how badly they wanted it, I would never believed their actions.
The Maltese Falcon remained elusive, even at the very end. I think it’s better that it ended that way. I think for anyone to be able to own the Maltese Falcon would have made it seem attainable and diminished its value.
I highly recommend this. If you are at all interested in private detective novels, then it’s impossible to say you’re a fan without some exposure to the hard-boiled genre and ‘The Maltese Falcon’ is a true classic.
On Another Note
Despite my ravings, I am not a fan of the hard-boiled detective sub-genre of crime fiction, but Humphrey Bogart is a work of art so I think my continual purchases of this genre are being driven by Bogart.
I am also still so stunned that the most famous line associated with ‘The Maltese Falcon’ was only in the movie and not in the book:
Detective Tim Polhaus: [picks up the falcon] Heavy. What is it?
Sam Spade: The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of.
Detective Tim Polhaus: Huh?
It’s one of the most iconic lines in movie history, and couldn’t better summarise the elusiveness of the Maltese Falcon.