Tuesday, May 25, 2010

One From The Vault; The Maltese Falcon

By Jay Stringer

I lamented a few weeks back that I don’t get much time to read at the moment. When I’m not hunched over my desk at the day job, I’m hunched over my laptop at the night job. It’s worth it, don’t get me wrong, bit it is something I’m missing right now.

Recently I found a little time to finish the great book ‘d been reading –review to follow in a week or so- and looked at my shelf for something familiar, something I could read without reading, if you know what I mean.

I almost picked up The Maltese Falcon, which I’ve not read in a few years, and that made me think or the review I wrote last time I re-read it. I enjoy dipping back into things I've written before. In this instance, it was fun to note how my online voice has changed since then, and how i lean more toward some of Hammett's other works. So here it is, straight from the vault.


THE MALTESE FALCON was published on valentines day 1930. That seems to strike a chord, its brilliantly fitting for the novel. And yet, it also feels wrong. To read the book in 2007 is to read something that feels modern, thoroughly modern.

Sure, it contains some dated references. It takes place in a world that nolonger exists. But at the same time, it reads almost as if one of our contemporary writers have written a ‘period piece’. The approach to the narrative, the characters and the dialogue, the total lack of morality, they all seem to come out of our modern psyche.

The private detective genre is one filled with clichés and traps; some writers fall into them, some subvert them or ignore them. Nevertheless, they are all aware of them. THE MALTESE FALCON was written before these clichés existed. But rather than reading something that came before the clichés, it feels like you’re reading a post-modern destruction of the private eye myth; that’s how good Hammett was, he turned the genre on his head even as he created it.

At no point in the novel does he take the reader into any of the characters heads, at no point does he tip the hat or give any motivation or plot details away.

His characters work a different trick to the other great names of hardboiled fiction. Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe is the cliché, the standard. He faces every situation with the best dialogue ever written, the finest in dry wit. Behind all his bravado and wit, lies a broken heart. There is dissatisfaction bubbling beneath the service, knowing that the world will hurt you. Marlowe is an anti-hero not because he lacks morality, but rather because the world does. He holds true to what’s left of himself.

Sam Spade, Hammett’s central character in THE MALTESE FALCON is a whole other character. At the outset of the book we find that he is having an affair with his business partners wife, and through the various twists and turns of the novel, the only thing we are ever sure of is that Spade is looking out for himself.

There is no bruised hero here, none of Marlowe’s damaged knight in shining armour. Humphrey Bogart played both characters on the silver screen, which gives a good example of the difference between them. Rick in CASABLANCA has a place In film history as the man who did the right thing, at the cost of a broken heart. He put the woman on the plane. Marlowe, too, would put the woman on the plane and end the story with a cracking one liner to hide the pain. Spade, by turn, would find a way to sneak her out the back way for a damn good seeing too, and damn the greater good.

It’s a strange ending to the book, which grows out of that brilliant characterization. Though in many ways the greater good is served, and the ‘good’ has triumphed over the ‘evil’, there is a tonal lack of triumph.

In the end, Spade is doing the right thing not because he wants to, or because its right, but because its ‘good for business’ and keeps him out of jail.

More than the invention of modern crime fiction, this is also the departure point for much of mainstream American cinema. An influence that has bled through into television and music.

This book is an important part of our cultural psyche.


John McFetridge said...

Great characterization is right.

Last night The Thin Man was on TV and the relationship between Nick and Nora Charles is still one of the best adult couples ever portrayed on film.

Jarrett Rush said...

This must be a sign. I have been thinking for the last month or so that I need to re-read Maltese and I keep seeing references to it everywhere.

Dana King said...

That's not a review; it's a dissertation. And a damn good one.