Although this book was in The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories
, I decided to enter it as a book because in every aspect, it is indeed a book and is counted as one of the five books written by Dashiell Hammett, along with numerous short stories. The book I read was the serialized version, originally published in Black Mask, beginning September 1929 and ending January 1930. The books itself was published February 14, 1930.
Historically it is considered the groundbreaking and first in the detective genre. Other critics have stated that Dashiell Hammett should not be relegated to that genre alone but should be recognized and elevated to the level of serious literature in the same ranks as Ernest Hemmingway.
Otto Penzler, winner of the Poe Award and founder of The Mysterious Press who published Ed McBain, Ross Macdonald, Mickey Spillane and Isaac Asimov to name a few authors, is the editor of the huge three pound book, The Black Lizard (full title above.)
The only reason I put off reading The Maltese Falcon is because the book is so very cumbersome and I knew it would be a pain, literally, in the neck to hold and read. It was worth it though albeit the neck pain.
Penzler says Dashiell Hammett “is arguably the most significant author of the hard-boiled private-eye novel in the history of American letters.” He continues that The Maltese Falcon is Hammett’s best-known work and the most famous mystery novel ever written by an American. According to Penzler when it was issued as a novel, it was dramatically revised mostly by Hammett (some by copy editors) with more than two thousand textual differences between the two versions.
It’s easy to see why Raymond Chandler, Robert B. Parker, and Ross Macdonald would revere Hammett and consider him the patron saint of mysteries and their idol. Easy indeed. And Donald Westlake said “For early influences we have to start, and almost end, with Hammett.” High praise from the creator of the Richard Stark series. “Dashiell Hammett stands with his two most prominent successors, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, as part of the unholy trinity of great, distinctively American crime writers,” states Editor Eric McMillan whose website is below.
Hammett’s writing is sparse, clear, clean and I’ve said this in other reviews (about Chandler, I recall) but it appears as though he read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style
prior to setting pen to paper.
His protagonists, Sam Spade, is a Los Angeles P.I. who, as Hammett described “…looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.” He described him as having V’s predominate in his entire face, chin, mouth, brows and hairline. I vaguely remember the movie (same name) and Humphrey Bogart is nothing visually like Spade in the book. But it’s said that Bogart captured Spade the character and in our mind’s eye, is Sam Spade when we think of him. That is, of course, if you’ve seen the movie otherwise you would see him as Hammett wrote and described Spade.
Back to Hammett’s writing, his sparse but very descriptive writing, is wonderful to read. Some authors, as we know, have a tendency to become verbose sometimes, when fewer words will suffice.
For a taste of Hammett I offer the following sentences:
• “Then Spade smiled. His smile was gentle, even dreamy.”
• “Points of yellow light began to dance in his eyes.” (Hammett uses the word yellow throughout the book.)
• “Gutman’s bulbs jounced as he took three waddling, backward steps away from the door.”
• “The looseness of his lower lip and the droop of his upper eyelids combined with the V’s in his face to make his grin lewd as a satyr’s.”
• “Gutman’s smile was affable, if a bit oily.”
To me, what these sentences have in common is their descriptive simplicity.
Hammett creates a femme fatale, a must in during that era, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, who turns on a dime to get what she wants, The Maltese Falcon. Seduction of the men around her is imaginative and colorful and it’s a challenge for Spade to stay out of her web.
The reader discovers Spade’s observation of himself and his own self-worth by the choices he makes. His view of life and living it is stated in his relating a story to Brigid of a missing man. I’m leaving the story to the reader but it describes clearly Spade’s view of life in today’s (1930’s) world. Come to think of it, one of the eye openers for me was that the book did not seem dated, so ‘my take’ on Spade’s life could certainly be true for someone in today world, that of being true to yourself.
The simplicity of language and unique, complicated mystery regarding the centuries old bird, make the story so very readable.
What I valued in the book was the historical nature (and the sparsely of the writing) since I’m an avid reader of the genre. Reading this genre I read where this writer or that author was influenced by Dashiell Hammett, so I was anxious to read him myself. I was anxious to understand how the genre was identified as separate from others and to know what ‘the fuss was all about’ with Hammett. I urge anyone who reads and enjoys mysteries to give this piece of history a turn. It’s certainly more than worth it as readers can see his influence in other writers of the same genre, even though it's more than 80 years old.
Hammett had quite an interesting personal life, including a love affair with writer Lillian Hellman. There are many sites devoted to his political activism including his refusal to cooperate with Joseph McCarthy's congressional hearings aimed at those who were sympathetic to Communists in the early 1950's. Obviously, he had a very exciting life.
Here are a couple of interesting links showing one showing where Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon: