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The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett

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Seventy-five years ago, San Francisco private detective Sam Spade took a case from Brigid O'Shaughnessy, a seductive redhead in a lot of trouble. Something to do with the mob, she says. Spade is no erudite master of elaborate theoretical puzzles constructed by others. He's a regular tough guy who knows how to take care of himself while tracking facts to whatever conclusion they lead.

Welcome to noir, the world of fiction where characters struggle through their internal conflicts and raw emotions in a tough world that often leaves them with no good option. They use whatever is available to them, which is heavy on the physical and light on the intellectual. Dashiell Hammett's novel, The Maltese Falcon, came to be not only his best-known work but the best-known of the day's noir, even representative of 1930s crime fiction.

Despite its fame, the book never captured my attention enough for me to read it. I have little interest in crime stories in general, so without knowing much more about the work than its genre, I always had something else to read. That finally changed when I made a trip to San Francisco around the seventy-fifth anniversary of the book's release and stayed at a hotel mentioned in the story.

I acquired a copy of a fine edition issued by the Folio Society.

Sam Spade is the sort of man I would neither like nor dislike, but for whom I would have respect. He shows us little to indicate that he is a man of taste, he is coarse and unrefined, and he shows little self-restraint. Even so, he is cool—not prone to act rashly in a difficult circumstance. Most importantly, however, is the fact that he does operate by a code, one that shows itself in how he protects his clients, his partner, and even himself. He calls it “justice,” something I support, but his modus operandi suggests that he believes that the ends justify the means, a conclusion that I do not support—even if it is merely the consequence of excessive pragmatism.

That women would have their passions aroused by Spade as they do—Dorothy Parker wrote in 1931 that she “mooned” over him for days after finishing the novel—is no surprise to me. He is rugged and individual, knowing how to take care of himself and those he chooses to protect. He is not stupid, but he does not approach intellectual: he is a man who operates in the physical realm. He spars with men, physically or verbally in a way that threatens the physical. His interactions with women are largely the same, with sparring being replaced by seduction. The problem, of course, is that there is little else afterward: only a woman who exists only in the body could have a fulfilling relationship with such a man.

Brigid O'Shaughnessy is such a woman, who operates on apparently nothing but desire. She is driven by what she wants: independence, escape from consequence, and a small statuette of a bird. At the same time, she pursues her desires using men's desire of her to manipulate things to her advantage. It is therefore ironic that she ultimately fails with Spade, not because she fails to provide him everything he needs from a woman but because she violates his code. When he turns her over to justice, he is finished with her: there is no looking back, no reflection, nothing to indicate that he will ever consider her again.

What little crime fiction I have read was riddled with problems: little in the way of character development, dry presentation of facts, and a curious inattention to detail. This style of presentation found in mystery novels is ultimately unfulfilling, subjecting the reader to the limitations of the narrator's powers of observation. Crime drama seems all the rage on television now, but that dreadful tripe is infinitely worse than very bad mysteries. The only thing that prevents me from wishing openly for cancellation of The CSI Channel, NCIS, JAG, and all of that other garbage is the knowledge that they'd likely be replaced with something even more inane, probably having something to do with eating live bugs for Donald Trump before getting voted off the island, but I digress.

The Maltese Falcon is a welcome break from bad crime fiction, one that focuses on the details of events and one that allows the reader to see more deeply into the characters—who they are and what makes them tick. Although I did not have the kind of intense, personal reaction that many others seem to have experienced with the novel, I did find it a worthwhile read and a view into what the presentation of a crime story could be.

Created by cmcurtin
Last modified 2005-05-22 10:26 AM
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