The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

First read: 12/99
Reviewed on: 12/22/99
Click here to buy it

I did not like it.
I liked it.
I thought it one of the Best Novels of All Time

I was staying with my friend, Joe, and woke up before he did.  So I thought I would read a book.  His main bookshelf, filled with interesting books, was situated so that to browse it I would have to lean over and have my butt an inch from his sleeping face.   I wasn't secure enough in my masculinity to adopt such a pose, and even if I were, it would have been socially awkward had he awoke at the wrong instant.

"Friend Douglas, I have opened my eyes to the sight of your buttocks!  I await your explanation!"
"I was... looking for a book?"
"I believe you not.  Leave my home forever."

Fortunately, he had an auxiliary bookshelf that wasn't so dangerously placed.  Joe has a lot of rare collectors items, so I tried to find a book that didn't seem somehow valuable.  (The paperbacks in plastic bags were ruled out right away, for example)  I finally picked up Down There by David Goodis. (retitled "Shoot the Piano Player")  It was incredible!  For about 15 years, I've been saying Of Human Bondage is my favorite novel ever.   And now it had a rival!  When I came home, I immediately went to a*****.c*m and ordered a few books by Goodis, to see if he was always that good.

But even though J*ff Bez*s built his company through a contract with the Devil, even he couldn't deliver those books fast enough.  And I had the Maltese Falcon on my bookshelf, and was primed and ready to read a novel involving Crime.   So I was the perfect audience for Hammett's story.

It begins with a lie: 

"Samuel Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth.  His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v.  His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal.  The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down - from high flat temples - in a point on his forehead.   He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan." 

That's a very nice, descriptive paragraph, but it is false.  It should have read:

"Samuel Spade, as you know, looked just like Humphrey Bogart." 

I'm sorry, Dashiell, but I'm a product of my culture.  Sam Spade is short, dark haired, with eyes a bit like a basset-hound.  I will picture him no other way.

The book and the movie were almost scene-by-scene the same.  The movie had great actors, but the book had great writing.  Hammett takes us on a great romp through the movements and machinations of Spade, Joel Cairo (who looks like Peter Lorre), Kasper Gutman (a ringer for Sydney Greenstreet), and Mary Astor.  I love his descriptions and dialogue.  He is able to tell a story from the point of view of Spade, make us empathize with Spade, and at the same time leave us in the dark as to what the hell Spade has planned.  We never know whether or not he's bluffing, corrupt, in love, a jerk, or a moral, nice guy.  And yet we still empathize with him.  It takes good writing to pull that off.

There were two weaknesses in the book that really took me out of its spell.  First of all:  I hated the ending of the scene where Sam Spade, Joel Cairo, and Mary Astor were having a parlay in Spade's apartment.  The cops came in, mayhem ensued, and it wound up with Spade concocting a lie that the three of them had deliberately tried to make the police believe illegalities were going on as a prank.  You have these two cops who desperately want to arrest these three suspicious individuals, and they say, "Oh.  It was a prank.  I guess we can't do anything.  Nope, nope, nope."  You schmucks!  You could have found a reason to arrest them.  Isn't a false alarm illegal in itself?  What the hell was that?

The second problem I had was the scene where the captain of the ship comes out of nowhere, hands the bird to Sam, and drops dead.  I hate to use phrases like deus ex machina but I just did and I stand by it.  It was totally out of the logic of the story.  And pages and pages were then spent later trying to rationalize it.   But I'm not a schmuck like those cops were; I'm not buying it.  Dashiell Hammett had constructed an elaborate game among four or five players (depending on if you count The Kid), and forgot that SOMEBODY had to get the bird (pardon the expression) at some point.  So he just said, "Look!  Here it is!  Now I'll write a whole bunch of stuff and hope I get away with it!"  No dice.

But the main issue I had, which doesn't bear directly on Falcon, was that it was on the list of "Top 100 Novels of All Time" and Down There ("Shoot the Piano Player") wasn't.  Both were books in the same genre, both were made into famous films, both used simple language, good imagery and crisp dialogue.   But Goodis was such a better writer on so many levels, that the injustice of his obscurity angers me.  I've read 23 books on that list and, with perhaps one exception, they were all inferior to this book that I would never have even HEARD of had I not wound up a homophobic houseguest in exactly the right apartment.

My friend Josh pointed out that the one scene in the book that wasn't in the movie was his favorite - the scene where Spade tells Mary Astor about a former quarry's near-death experience.  It's clear why that one scene was cut (inessential to the plot, time reasons) but it was quite good.  And the spooky thing is that the aforementioned Josh is the brother of the Joe from whom I borrowed the Goodis book!  And if that weren't a weird enough coincidence, they host a variety show which sometimes features an improv-origamist named Gutman, just like the Sydney Greenstreet character!  Tell me how your "science" can explain THAT!

Back to The whole list
Back to my personal page

Doug Code 1/2001:
"o lomh qk'rr gkb xqcb qk'p dgib hitomg bi qot."
"xqu ji uif lomh lcb?"
"o pkmb ob fvp"
-jifg pqcx







hits since Feb 1, 2000