Published in 1930
A treasure worth killing for. Sam Spade, a slightly shopworn private eye with his own solitary code of ethics. A perfumed grifter named Joel Cairo, a fat man named Gutman, and Brigid O'Shaughnessy, a beautiful and treacherous woman whose loyalties shift at the drop of a dime. These are the ingredients of Dashiell Hammett's cooly glittering gem of detective fiction, a novel that has haunted three generations of readers.
Sam Spade and his partner Miles Archer are private investigators in San Francisco. A beautiful damsel in distress named Miss Wonderly hires them to find her little sister, who has supposedly run off to San Francisco in the company of a very dangerous man named Floyd Thursby. While tailing Thursby, Miles Archer is shot. Soon after this, Thursby himself turns up dead, and Spade becomes a suspect. So begins The Maltese Falcon, which is full of sex and violence (neither being graphic or explicit, but definitely there) and femme fatales and scheming and double-crosses and cool one-liners.
This is one of those books that suffers from having been so often imitated. Even if you haven't seen the movie, you'll still probably see the twists coming a mile away because you know the plot through cultural osmosis. But read it anyway: Dashiell Hammett writes like a whittler carving a stick into... a very pointy stick. Which is to stay, he tells a linear, concise story with just enough description to paint a clear picture, but with everything else pared away. He doesn't go into anyone's head, even that of the main character. Everything is conveyed by action and dialog. The reader is an invisible bystander. The only flaw I found in his writing was a few too many mentions of Sam Spade's "yellow-gray eyes."
The defining characteristics of "hard-boiled" detective stories are tough, cocky heroes in a gritty, unsentimental world. Unlike a lot of other crime fiction, The Maltese Falcon doesn't have a "moral," and the "mystery" isn't really a puzzle for the reader to solve. Hammett doesn't lay clues per se, though the reader might guess some of what's really going on before it's revealed (even without the advantage of this story having been part of the pop-culture zeitgeist for eighty years). Sam Spade is cool and cynical and dangerous, taking it as a matter of course when he's lied to and double-crossed, never getting upset when people point guns at him, but erupting into a violent temper at tactically appropriate moments. He's not quite an anti-hero, but he's a morally ambiguous hero; he ultimately does the right thing, but only after calculating the pros and cons and deciding the right thing is in his best interest. Throughout the story he often seems quite willing to throw in with the bad guys, and when he ends up not doing so, the reader is unsure whether it's because he never really intended to, or because he just decided the risks weren't worth the rewards. This definitely applies to his resolution with Brigid O'Shaughnessy aka "Miss Wonderly."
I found this to be a fun read, but not a very exciting one, because like I said, the plot is old and everyone knows it if you've ever picked up a book influenced by Hammett (which is to say, if you've ever read any kind of mystery or crime thriller) or watched a film noir movie. But Spade's cool comebacks and his deft use of words, fists, or guns, as appropriate, are as tight as the plotting. (Incidentally, there's not a lot of shooting, at least not on the page -- Spade himself never shoots anyone.) So The Maltese Falcon is worth reading even apart from a historical appreciation for its place in genre fiction.
But, do I need to point out that it was written in 1930? It's not as offensive as a lot of fiction from less enlightened decades (James Bond is a hell of a lot more misogynistic than Sam Spade, and he came along almost three decades later), but Joel Cairo (repeatedly referred to as "The Levantine") is the stereotypical sleazy, effeminate foreigner, and of course, the limited roles for women are "sidekick" or "seductress." Hard-boiled writers knew their audience, and it wasn't dames.
Sam Spade on the Silver Screen
There were three film versions of The Maltese Falcon. The one everyone is familiar with is the 1941 version starring Humphrey Bogart, but it was actually a remake of the original 1931 version.
And now I am going to commit cinematographic heresy: I liked the 1931 version better.
The first Maltese Falcon movie (made just a year after the book came out, remember) is not a great piece of cinema. I'll admit that it doesn't stand up to the 1941 version in terms of quality or acting. In fact, the acting was terrible. The actors mug and declaim their lines like they're reading from cue cards off-screen. There are several changes made in the story, such as Miles Archer knowing about Sam Spade's affair with his wife, and a scene at the end where Spade visits O'Shaughnessy in prison, which wasn't in the book at all.
But damn, the actors seemed to be having fun! And the sultry, sexy undercurrent in Hammett's novel was preserved in this film version, too.
Ten years later, the Hays Code was in effect, and it shows. 1941's Maltese Falcon is chaster and grimmer. Perhaps it is all that sexual repression that made this the first "noir film" and regarded as a classic of the genre. No more gauzy, clingy, revealing dresses -- everyone is buttoned-up and the most suggestive thing that happens is a kiss. Sam Spade can't get away with taunting the police or the bad guys with wisecracks alluding to homosexuality in the Code era. The part in the book (which also appears in the 1931 film) where Spade makes O'Shaughnessy take off her clothes to prove she didn't steal something has been completely omitted. And the women in the 1931 version were more spirited; by 1941, women are to be meek with their eyes ever-downcast.
Was this objectively a better work? Sure. But as I watched them back to back, it was startling to see what a change occurred in America from the 1930s to the 1940s, at least in Hollywood. The difference is stark, from sizzling to stifling.
It wasn't clear to me why 1936's Satan Met a Lady, starring Bette Davis, was made, since it's basically a comedic version of The Maltese Falcon, with essentially the same plot and characters but a large number of cosmetic changes, all for the worse.
Only after reading the Wikipedia article was it clear: remember what I said about the Hays Code? In 1936, Warner Brothers wanted to rerelease The Maltese Falcon, but this time, the censors said uh-uh. So they filmed a new version instead. How bad was it? Bette Davis almost quit in protest, and you can read the New York Times review from 1936 online:
A cynical farce of elaborate and sustained cheapness, it causes still other intelligent actors and actresses—including Warren William, Arthur Treacher and Alison Skipworth — to behave like numskulls, and deserves to be quoted as a classic of dullness, in future press notices, as often as "The Thin Man" —also based on a Dashiell Hammett theme—has been quoted as a classic of scintillating wit. As Mr. William's blonde and nit-wit secretary remarks, about midway of the action :"I've got a cousin who specializes in brain diseases. Maybe we'd better turn the case over to him." The suggestion is tempting but probably wouldn't work for the good reason that this particular case would defy the diagnostic technique of a Crile.
I agree: I watched Satan Met a Lady and aside from the vague resemblance to The Maltese Falcon, I had no idea WTF was going on or why characters were randomly acting like idiots. Watch the 1931 version, watch the 1941 version, but watch this only if you need a reminder that Hollywood has always produced mostly crap, especially when trying to cannibalize its own product for a quick buck.
Verdict: A classic that deserves its place, though unless you're a devoted hard-boiled fan, there's not much to excite the modern reader aside from Hammett's prose and plotting, which is very good and an excellent example of how to structure a novel. The book is better than the movie, but see the movie(s) too for an education in cinematography and literature both.