Review: The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett

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Not a sci-fi or fantasy today, but as I was watching Star Trek: The Next Generation (in particular Picard’s holodeck adventures as Dixon Hill), I suddenly got an itch to read an actual hardboiled detective mystery.  And when I did, one title just instantly sprang to mind – The Maltese Falcon.  Of course this story has been adapted to film several times, but I’d never actually read the novel before.

We follow the misadventures of Sam Spade, ‘The Blond Satan’, who is a dick both privately and in public.  Real life private detectives of course spend the vast majority of their working hours just spying on spouses suspected of cheating by their partners, so it’s perhaps understandable they’d develop a very cynical and jaded view of the world.

Anyway, into his office and his life walks ‘Miss Wonderly’, who hires Spade and his partner to a follow a man she claims has run off with her sister.  They accept, although Spade doesn’t buy her story.  Turns out he was right – it’s not about a missing sister at all, but a black bird figurine that is apparently very valuable to a lot of people.  Big bucks are involved, and a lot of plotting and backstabbing as everyone tries to procure the figurine for themselves.

Miss Wonderly turns out to in fact be Brigid O’Shaughnessy, who is… well, not a femme fatale.  I suppose she is actually the original femme fatale.  Yes, it’s cliché to us today but this story introduced a lot of the tropes that have been imitated many times since.  For that reason alone it’s probably worth at least checking this book out.

But the negatives:  This story is quite horrendous in the way it treats women, which you may put down to the time it was written but definitely grated a bit on me and I suspect will to a lot of modern readers.  Also, Sam Spade does acquire the figurine, but through absolutely no effort at all on his part.  It just kind of falls into his hands.  For a detective, I was hoping for a little more, you know, detecting on his part.

But if you are a fan of the detective, hardboiled or noir genres then this is obviously a highly significant and influential piece of work.  In fact if you are a fan of those genres I can’t imagine you won’t already have this on your shelves.  And if you’re not really a fan but just curious like I was, well, chances are you’ve still heard of this story as this is probably the most famous and best example of the genre.  Sam Spade is kind of an A-hole, but it’s full of intrigue, action and gunfights that it should keep most people entertained throughout its length.

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