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Thursday, March 24, 2011

LBT's Generic Book Corner: The Maltese Falcon

In the very depths of my soul, I like to think that I am the protagonist of a hard-boiled PI drama. Cynical, savvy, and as Raymond Chandler described, "a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness." (Only, you know, a woman). There is something very noble about the hard-boiled detective, someone who feels keenly, but is not guided by those feelings - who does what is right, no matter the personal cost.

What draws me to characters like Spade, and like Jane Eyre, is how they live by their convictions. I admire that they do not bend to emotion when push comes to shove. I am not sure if I am strong enough to live that way, but I have to appreciate the ones who do.

I suspect that my love of trench coats and hats stems from this. I know my affection for whisky is born from watching one too many marathons of Marlow and Hammett film adaptations. Sadly, for me at least, that is where my similarities with this character end. While I like to think of myself as stoic, the truth is I shout far too much about clowns and Cthulhu to actually believe that is the case. And let's be honest, I do not have the chutzpah to follow the clues to the bitter, bitter end. "Meh. It'll sort itself out eventually" - detective me.

This brings me to the book of the week, Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. This is perhaps the most famous of the gritty detective stories, and is certainly a codifier of the tropes common to the genre. Are there dames? Check. Are the dames shifty? Double check. Is there a femme fatale? Oh, this could not be more checked. There are crosses, double crosses, red herrings, and all the characters are using our gritty hero, Sam Spade, for their own ends. The cast of characters include Miles Archer, Spade's (spoiler alert) doomed partner; Iva Archer, Miles' widow and Spade's paramour; Brigid O'Shaughnessy, the femme fatale/client; Joel Cairo, a shady character pursuing the titular Maltese Falcon, and who has dealings with O'Shaughnessy; Casper Gutman, ANOTHER party pursuing the titular Falcon; Effie, the firm secretary, and gunmen and other people I am too lazy to wikipedia at the moment.

As is probably expected from the title, much of the book is spent in pursuit of the Maltese Falcon, a valuable falcon statuette ("duh" - everyone) that had been stolen* from its owner prior to the events in the book. Story time: when I was lilbabbytables, I for real thought that 'Maltese' referred to some sort of valuable material, like platinum. There are...reasons my dreams of being a PI are not very likely.

Anyway, Spade is working for O'Shaughnessy and trying to solve his partner's murder and dealing with all these dames (I think I should probably hate this book in that respect, but none of the dudes are any better, save Spade, who is also a jerk (albeit our jerk). Everyone is terrible!) and trying to determine who is telling the truth between Cairo, Gutman, O'Shaughnessy, and everyone else who is full of lies. One of the things that this book, and many like it, suffers from is the fact that its tropes have been so overused after its publication that we know going in to it what will happen. We know that the femme fatale is up to no good. We know no one is what they seem. We know that the falcon is what dreams are made of. We know that at the end, Spade will be the last one standing. Even if he has to destroy himself, justice will be served.



  1. I'm a huge Hammett fan, but for my money I'll take The Continental Op over Spade. I re-read The Glass Key and Red Harvest every year as well as some of the Black Mask short stories.

  2. You know, FLW, I have not read the Continental Op yet. I am as ashamed of myself as I presume you are. I do love The Thin Man (desperately trying to reclaim cred).

  3. By that, I mean I have not read stories featuring the Continental Op. Sheesh, lbt, go back to comprehension school.

  4. It's OK. I just realized that I meant to write The Dain Curse, not The Glass Key, so we both have to sit on the do-over stool in the corner.

  5. This is one of my favorite MOBFD posts ever! Chandler and Hammett are two of my favs (not to mention Jim Thompson). Now if only i could make time to read more crime fiction. Thanks, LBT!