A priceless Maltese falcon figurine is at the center of Dashiell Hammett’s seminal detective novel set in foggy San Francisco. The story opens with a mysterious woman named Miss Wonderly hiring private eye Sam Spade and his partner Miles Archer to follow Floyd Thursby, who supposedly eloped with her sister.
Archer is shot to death while trailing Thursby, who also gets slain on the same night. Who killed the two men? The police think Spade murdered Thursby after Thursby killed Archer. It’s the beginning of a clever and thrilling hunt for the killer.
Soon we learn a complicated web of entanglements. Sam has been having an affair with Archer’s wife, Iva. Miss Wonderly’s real name is Brigid O’Shaughnessy, who turns out to be Thursby’s accomplice in trying to smuggle the Maltese falcon from Asia.
As Sam tries to get to the bottom of Archer’s death, three other characters are introduced: Casper Gutman and his henchmen, Joel Cairo and Wilmer Cook. They’re all interested in the falcon and they believe Brigid knows where it is.
Hammett’s novel was serialized in Black Mask magazine from September 1929 to January 1930 and then published as a book by Knopf in 1930. Hammett, a former Pinkerton private eye, set the standards for the detective genre and introduced key elements such as the hard-boiled hero (Sam), the femme fatale (Brigid), and the tough guys (Gutman and company).
Sam Spade is the best thing about “The Maltese Falcon.” He fights the bad guys bare-fisted and he outsmarts the cops and the villains alike. He has a talent for bluffing.
He’s pragmatic to the point of callous—an anti-romantic hero. He betrayed Archer by having an affair with Iva, even though he doesn’t love her. He also didn’t care for Archer’s incompetence and yet he hunts down Archer’s killer, exhibiting a fierce loyalty to his partner.
Even when Sam falls for Brigid, he doesn’t lose sight of his goal. His pragmatism serves him well because Brigid turns out to be a red-haired catastrophe.
Sam has a sweet but platonic relationship with Effie Perine, his secretary. He cares about her opinion, even when she turns out to be 100 percent wrong about Brigid.
In one scene, he displays his affectionate side this way: “He puts a finger on the tip of Effie’s nose and flattened it. He put his hands under her elbows, lifted her straight up and kissed her chin. He set her down on the floor again and asked, ‘Anything doing while I was gone?’”
In return, Effie is devoted to Sam, the kind of assistant who spends the night in the office waiting for him because he needs her.
Hammett’s Writing Style
Most creative writing teachers and writing books tell writers to avoid redundancy and overwriting. Hammett embraced both and pulled it off. He described even secondary characters in great detail.
He described one cop this way: “The Lieutenant was a compactly built man with a round head under short-cut grizzled hair and a square face behind a short-cut grizzled mustache. A five-dollar gold-piece was pinned to his necktie and there was a small elaborate diamond-set secret-society emblem on his lapel.”
I can almost hear the gasps of creative writing teachers over Hammett’s use of “short-cut grizzled” twice in the same paragraph. So what? The book worked and his writing style worked.
I won’t reveal the book’s ending, except to say that if Hammett were alive, the “Maltese Falcon” would probably have a sequel.
I read this novel because Paula Munier devoted an entire chapter in her book, “Plot Perfect: Building Unforgettable Stories Scene by Scene” to it. She dissected “The Maltese Falcon” as a case study. Now that I’ve read it, I appreciate her analysis all the more.
I barely remember the 1941 film noir directed by John Huston, starring Humphrey Bogart, so it didn’t color my judgment when I read this novel. “The Maltese Falcon” is considered the best detective novel there is. Now I know why. It’s clever, unsentimental, and thrilling in a moody sort of way. It’s like San Francisco—the perfect setting for Hammett’s pioneering book— beautiful, exciting, and shrouded in chilly fog and mystery.
If you’re unfamiliar with the genre, this novel is the best place to start. If you’re a fan of detective novels, you’ve probably already read it. I hope you share some of your thoughts and leave a comment below.