Sam Spade shares an office with his partner Miles Archer. The two receive a visitor calling herself Miss Wonderley. This potential new client wants the duo to follow a man named Floyd, who she speculates has convinced her sister to run off with him. When she produces cash, the two agree to the case and Archer is the first to do the checking up. Unfortunately, Spade is notified that same night that Archer has been shot to death. Spade later learns that this Floyd fellow has been killed as well.
Anyone that reads my reviews knows that one of my biggest pet peeves in literature is starting a novel with a lot of “what the Hell is going on” type of stuff. The Maltese Falcon is one of those books. The first chapters, or arguably the entire first half, purposefully makes very little sense. Wonderley is really a woman named Brigid O' Shaughnessy, who was hired by a man named Gutman in Constantinople to locate a precious statue of a falcon said to have been passed down through the years from the 16th century. This Brigid woman hired another guy named Cairo to help her get the falcon, but then fled to San Francisco with Floyd hoping to make an even more lucrative sell to a higher bidder than Gutman. Forget all of the sister stuff.
Cairo is now chasing Brigid, while she's being chased by Gutman and the police think Spade is in on the kill of Archer and maybe Floyd because he was sleeping with Archer's wife Iva. It's a tangled plot with a lot of characters and moving parts. Sadly, nothing really ever happens beyond an excessive amount of dialogue, speculation, and finger wagging. At one point, every major character enters the room and they get down to the discussion of who killed who and motives and all of the typical stuff you find in the armchair sleuth business.
Sure, Spade is a cool character, doesn't say much, and breaks the mold of the Sherlock Golden Age Detective by unconventional means. He doesn't work well with the law, obviously has some anti-hero characteristics (he's sleeping with his partner's wife for God's sake), and becomes an evasive fall guy chasing red herrings galore. He should be easy to cheer, considering he's the least baddest of the bad guys. But, all of these characteristics still left a dull edge. Spade isn't supposed to be a likable guy, but he should damn well be an entertaining one.
Hammett's storytelling style didn't resonate with me. There isn’t much insight into what any of these characters are thinking. Instead, it reads like a play with the entire novel presented through the dialogue. It is void of any emotional depth.
The idea that this book is cherished by the mystery community seems odd to me. Is it really a mystery novel that needs an adventure, or an adventure novel trapped in the confines of a whodunit? I wanted Sam Spade to grab a suitcase and head to Europe or Asia chasing this Holy Grail-like relic of Spanish lore. The whole idea of chasing the treasure is just begging for a wild globe-trot. But, these things never happen and the mystery doesn't escape a handful of rooms.
Granted, I'm probably saturated in modern detectives or more hard-hitting tough guys from the mid to late 20th century, so finding Sam Spade late in the game didn't do me (or him) any favors. It's like watching Top Gun: Maverick (2022) and then attempting to appreciate The Dawn Patrol (1938). It is probably more my fault than Hammett's, but I still can't justify the hype of Sam Spade or The Maltese Falcon. Overall, this was a snooze fest for me.
Wow. Forgive me, but...so wrong. The entire private eye genre is defined and perfected in this novel. The characters are fascinating and specific, the dialogue crackles. It's the greatest hardboiled detective novel ever written. Yes, it requires work on the reader's part...but everything is there. Hammett is at once generous -- giving us detail after detail -- but also stingy, never letting us inside Spade's head. Try again.ReplyDelete
Max, thanks again for reading the review. We talked on FB, but wanted to respond here too. I will most definitely try again. Perhaps RED HARVEST.Delete
Wow, indeed. The novel’s beginning WTF? confusion is not a bug—it’s a feature; a hint at the avalanche of lies to come. Not only did this hugely influential book blow up the mystery genre, but it became a bestseller in its time, spawned three film adaptations in a decade and about a zillion imitations in books, film, radio, television and comics. I recommend some desaturation before tackling 90-year-old books.ReplyDelete
It has certainly left behind an adoring fan base and a lasting legacy. I’m glad we are discussing this 90 year old novel.Delete
For someone who's read a lot of 'pulp' you seem to have very little understanding of it. I don't think I'll be visiting this site anymore.ReplyDelete
YPAS, thanks for reading the review. After 1,500 reviews and counting, I hope you keep on coming back to read more. You just never know what the next review will be. The unexpected is the expected.Delete
I'm going to go ahead and assume you guys are trolling here to get engagement. Come on, now. I appreciate an honest review, but you owe it to yourself to look a little deeper when reading an all-time classic.ReplyDelete
We definitely try to be respectful to the oldest old stuff. I don’t write it all off. We have positive reviews for a lot of cherished stuff - Hemingway, ERB, REH, London, Cain, Bradbury, HPL….off the top.Delete
Interesting review--partly because few come to books that have the status of classics and evaluate them as a plain and simple read (something I am very much in favor of, by the way).ReplyDelete
Certainly I think an issue for the reader coming to this one today is that they have likely seen it done so many times since--and even parodied so many times since. There may, too, be the way in which thrillers have tended to get more "action-packed" over the years.
However, I do think that the book's prose style--the author's adherence to "Show, don't tell"-style storytelling--makes it harder to follow and harder to get into. (It's one thing to get this approach in a domestic novel of everyday life, another in a twist-packed thriller, and I'm not sure it works especially well in this genre. It can be an issue reading le Carrè, for example, who wrote his spy novels in a similar manner.)
In spite of having that same storytelling approach, though, I was much more deeply impressed by what was actually Hammett's first novel, Red Harvest--which seems to me to deserve every bit of praise it's ever received (and maybe more than Falcon be the book by which Hammett is best remembered).
Agree 100%. It’s like loving Green Day, but never hearing much by The Ramones or The Clash. Whether you like the earlier bands isn’t really necessary to worship Green Day. You can appreciate the influence and move on. (Note - I love The Ramones!)Delete
I couldn't agree more with your review of The Maltese Falcon. Yes, the book is historically important, and it deserves respect for launching a sub-genre. I can also see how it stunned and delighted readers back then. However, judged purely on its merit as a piece of entertainment today, the book does not hold up to modern scrutiny. The prose is bad, the story is convoluted, and the characters are flat. The book is not fun to read. The Continental Op short stories are even worse.ReplyDelete
I've been reading this blog daily for years, and it's rare to see more than a single comment per day. It's delightful to see people so defensive about your OPINION of this one book. I'd bet these haters are the same people who would rage against literary types and say things like "So what if Cormac McCarthy is supposed to be so great? I hate his books!" However, one blogger turns against one of THEIR OWN sacred text and they come with fiery torches.
Please don’t go all Taylor Swift on us, Philip. I’m hardly a hater, and I’m not seeing many fiery torches or the vitriol somebody else mentioned around here. You want to play the victim card, go ahead, but don’t do it on Paperback Warrior’s behalf. He’s a stand up guy who knew people would disagree with his opinion when he posted it, and may even enjoy the attention. I’m assuming his opinion is sincere, and most of us, I hope, have no problem with that—we simply have our own sincere OPINIONS.Delete
I think you hit on two things that seem to me particularly worthwhile here:ReplyDelete
1. We often forget that classics frequently get to be classics because they "did it first." Very often others who come along later "do it better" (or at least, more to the taste of a later audience). That to me is one of the reasons why it's worth remembering exactly what a book did, and didn't do, especially as even the greatest works are never "perfect" in the sense that leave everyone completely satisfied in every way. (In fact, gushing but vague praise tends to make me skeptical that a reviewer is really offering a worthwhile opinion of their own.)
2. I too am surprised by the vitriol in some of the above posts. Usually those who comment here are much more civil than this--while I admit to some surprise that what seemed to me fair-minded criticism of this book drew this response. (I guess this one has many more loyal fans than most books of its era do today.)
Kudos to you for your honest review! It's interesting to me at least that the naysayers think you have missed the point of the book, but they don't bother to identify what is it they think you have missed. "Everything is there" - what is "everything"? It "blew up the mystery genre" - okay, but how, and why was it so influential? "Little understanding of pulp" - what is it about "pulp" that you fail to understand? "Look a little deeper" - look for what?ReplyDelete
That being said, I am curious as to why it's a pet peeve of yours for a novel to start off with situations that make the reader wonder what is going on. As Kevin Burton Smith notes, this is a distinctive feature of mystery stories, so I'm wondering if you're judging a mystery by the criteria of the adventure and revenge stories you often review, in which the protagonist simply decides what he's going to do and does it.
I have slightly mixed feeling about Hammett. I enjoyed THE MALTESE FALCON and THE THIN MAN more than his much-admired RED HARVEST. I can admire what he was doing in RED HARVEST without loving it.ReplyDelete
But I do love THE MALTESE FALCON and I like Sam Spade as a character.
It is difficult coming to a writer like Hammett who has been so widely imitated.
"Everything is there" in terms of character, plot and theme. I made it clear that the reader has to do some digging for it. This has to do with the unusual point of view, following Spade exclusively but not entering his thoughts. I appreciate that your response was so civil and even kind. I find DAIN CURSE underrated, by the way, and RED HARVEST a trifle overrated. But Hammett spawned major genres with each of his handful of novels. RED HARVEST begats Mickey Spillane, DAIN CURSE Chandler/Ross MacDonald, GLASS KEY the crime novel with a criminal "detective" (Elmore Leonard and others), THIN MAN the comedy of manners mystery/male/female duo detectives. You can not care for Hammett's style but it's important that a site as influential and, well, as good as it is understand the roots of what it extols. For me, THE MALTESE FALCON is THE GREAT GATSBY of crime fiction. That doesn't mean it works for everybody -- neither does GATSBY.ReplyDelete