You’re a son of a gun, Sammy

maltese falconThe Maltese Falcon
by Dashiell Hammett

I’ve been meaning to read this for years. As a fan of Raymond Chandler I figured I should read the original gritty noir American detective, so I was pleased when my book club picked this for one of our “classic” reads. I was late to the book club discussion but I think we all felt the same way: this is worth reading but not as good as Chandler!

I guess I was hoping for that luscious purple prose that Chandler is such an expert at – it’s ridiculous and yet in a way beautiful. Hammett has none of that. Which isn’t to say this is badly written, it’s just a bit plainer, but still very entertaining and with moments of beauty.

The story centres on San Francisco private detective Sam Spade. He’s cynical, a womaniser, good at depriving villains of their weapons and on first-name terms with most local police, the DA and the DA’s secretary. And he sees a lot of his lawyer. The plot begins on page one, with a new client arriving in his office. Miss Wonderly wants Spade and his partner to follow a man for her, a simple enough job that predictably is neither as simple or as safe as it should have been. The maltese falcon of the title takes a while to come into play and is an appropriately mysterious unusual object around which to centre a plot that brings together a variety of criminals.

“Spade plucked his cigarette from between his lips. ‘I don’t believe it or disbelieve it, Sid. I don’t know a damned thing about it.’

A wry smile twisted the lawyer’s mouth. He moved his shoulders wearily and said: ‘That’s right—I’m selling you out. Why don’t you get an honest lawyer—one you can trust?’

‘That fellow’s dead.’ Spade stood up. He sneered at Wise. ‘Getting touchy, huh? I haven’t got enough to think about: now I’ve got to remember to be polite to you. What did I do? Forget to genuflect when I came in?’

Sid Wise smiled sheepishly. ‘You’re a son of a gun, Sammy,’ he said.”

Even for its time, Spade is painted as a bad egg when it comes to women. He not only flirts with them all, he talks down to them and has his hands all over them. It’s actually hard to tell if this is a calculated act he puts on or just how he is. I can’t quite tell if I was left feeling I don’t know much about Sam Spade because he’s deliberately inscrutable or because Hammett didn’t bother with character particularly.

I’d have to conclude that this is not great literature but it is fun, exciting (fairly so, not exactly an adrenaline rush) and easy to read. I’m a little curious if Spade’s character and his relationship with his secretary Effie Perine are expanded on in future books, but I’d rather go back to reading Chandler.

“ ‘But—oh!—I’m so tired of it, and I do so hate having to talk about it. Wouldn’t it—wouldn’t it be just as well to wait and let you learn about it as you say you will?’

Spade laughed. ‘I don’t know. You’ll have to figure that out for yourself. My way of learning is to heave a wild and unpredictable monkeywrench into the machinery. It’s all right with me, if you’re sure none of the flying pieces will hurt you.’ ”

First published 1929 in Black Mask magazine.

Source: The Melton Bookshop.