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Though it came out more than seventy-five years ago, The Maltese Falcon is still quite possibly the best-known crime mystery novel. Penned by American writer Dashiell Hammett and published in 1930, it features the famous and most imitated private eye of all time: the flinty eyed, hard-boiled, Sam Spade. A greedy and ruthless cast of characters meet their match in the antihero detective. There is the deceptive beauty Brigid O'Shaughnessy, the sinister Casper Gutman, the effeminate Joel Cairo and his eager-to-be-feared side kick Wilmer Cook. All of them are on a quest for the Maltese Falcon, a fabulously valuable sixteenth century artifact. The plot, characters and dialogue in The Maltese Falcon are perfectly controlled by Hammett, incorporating a style that became the paradigm for dark and gritty crime fiction and made the book an indispensable classic.

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Barry Hammond
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Janice MacDonald
Crime Writer
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The Maltese Falcon takes place at the end of the jazz age, and I think the music is important. It's one of the first detective books that took the mystery out of the drawing room, like the classic detective stories, and brings it into the street. The characters use the vernacular speech, they use slang, all of which were unusual at the time. Certainly jazz became the soundtrack for both hardboiled and noir fiction.

One major difference between classic detective stories and hardboiled fiction is that classic mysteries favour the status quo. The villain enters the story and disrupts the status quo, and then the detective enters, solves the mystery, and restores it. In hardboiled fiction that doesn't happen. The status quo is destroyed right away, and it never comes back. Social appearances are often kept up, but social reality and social appearances are two very different things in the hardboiled detective story.

Hammett's work was very influenced by his experience as a Pinkerton detective. The Pinkertons were involved in strike-breaking, and came down very hard on labour. Hammett told his wife, Lillian Hellman, that he'd been offered five thousand dollars to murder the labour leader Frank Little. He didn't accept the offer, but soon after that Little was lynched with three other men. Hammett never forgot the incident his entire life, and I think it contributed to his whole sense that you can't trust the police, society, or any authority figures.

A big theme in the book is collective action versus individual action. None of the collective actions ever work out; the police can't accomplish anything, the alliances between the villains explode because of greed. Then there is the individual, Sam Spade, who goes up against these collective actions and succeeds. It's interesting that Hammett, who was a member of the Communist party, wrote books that were very much in favour of individual action against collective.

Other reviews by Barry Hammond:
Blackfly Season
The Closers
Grave Tattoo

 

There's something fabulous about Sam Spade. He's the prototype of the hardboiled detective, the touchstone that any private eye novel uses. He walks a fine line; he has to be able to walk through the front doors of a mansion to take a job from a wealthy man, but he also has to be able to slide in and among the underworld in order to get answers.

Spade is easily the best person who wanders through The Maltese Falcon, right down to the policemen and the other detectives. He does not corrupt the innocent. He is determined to discover who murdered his partner - it's instinctual, it's a matter of some sort of deep ethical nature. Spade has his "Girl Friday", Effie, who I see as the reason he sullies himself. She's the humanity whose innocence he wants to preserve.

Raymond Chandler said of Dashiell Hammett that he "gave murder back to people who do it for a reason", rather than to create another step in the puzzle game. If you pay attention to how Hammett wrote the book, you'll notice that you never get an internal monologue, you never get an explanation, all you get is action and visual description. So the game that Hammett plays with us is 'I'll show you everything I see, let's see how far you get.'

Other reviews by Janice MacDonald:
Darkly Dreaming Dexter
The Torment of Others
Memory Book