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NinthWanderer

NinthWanderer

Have Coffee, Will Travel

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The Maltese Falcon - Dashiell Hammett I spent the better part of my morning trying to think about this book and how to justify my three-star rating and write an enlightened, erudite review. Then I thought, "Fuck it." While it's nice to get votes and have people tell me how smart and insightful I am, that's not why I read.

The Maltese Falcon was a mostly entertaining read. I found parts of it silly and thought the plot really unraveled in the end. I prefer the film version, which cuts out the sillier, extraneous bits of plot and just focuses on what needs to be there. Gutman's daughter, for example, was completely unnecessary.

The characters were predominantly two-dimensional and I didn't have a sense that any of them, except Spade and possibly Effie by extension, could have any existence beyond the confines of the book. Gutman (Get it? He's fat!), Cairo (Get it? He's Middle Eastern!), the punk, O'Shaughnessy -- their only purpose was to vie for the falcon. It was all they'd done before the events in the book and all they'd do after, if lucky enough to escape prison and/or the hangman's noose.

Women didn't fare especially well in this novel. Effie was the stock secretary with a heart of gold secretly in love with the boss but who never gets the time of day from him (I've been that girl, but had more sense than to trust the femme fatale who walked in the door). Iva was the stock spurned lover who believed too many of Spade's empty promises. Brigid (Get it? It rhymes with frigid!) was the stock femme fatale who smolders on the surface, using her sex to manipulate men, but who is really a lying ice queen underneath. I'll give Hammett the credit that these characters may only seem stock to me because I'm viewing them through the lens of 80 years of subsequent copycats. But, again, these women don't seem to have any internal lives beyond their relationships to Spade (or in Brigid's case, the falcon).

Not that the male characters fare much better. Gutman is a rather one-note bemused fat man, while Cairo is the stereotypical oily Levantine with a generous helping of mincing "fairy" thrown in for extra effect (props to R.M. for mentioning this first). The punk doesn't even get a name until about two-thirds of the way through, and then he exists merely to point a gun at Spade and crack wise in street tough lingo like "Drop your heater."

Spade is the most well-drawn of the characters, which is natural since the reader spends the most time with him. Unfortunately, this crack detective who's smarter than the cops is put in the position of doing dumb things to advance the plot. Things like dismissing the notion that O'Shaughnessy could possibly be involved in Archer's murder until the very end. She's the first person he should have suspected (but then, I had seen the film, which gave me a leg up on our hardboiled dick). Or like handing a loaded gun back to Cairo (props again to R.M.). There were other things, but I forget them now.

What Hammett did really well, however, was use description and action to convey characters' thoughts. The narrative was almost like a textbook lesson in "show, don't tell." The description, especially of everyone's clothes, was heavy-handed in the first couple of chapters, but then I started to see how the description was being used to show that Sam was methodical (an entire paragraph devoted to him sitting down to roll a cigarette after learning about his partner's death, another full paragraph describing the scene of the crime, showing Spade stopping to observe and take everything in before talking to the cops). Or there was Brigid's flitting around her apartment straightening things to show she was avoiding Spade's questions. The description is really what holds up the narrative, and I give Hammett credit for that.