It has been called the greatest private detective novel. While that sounds like hyperbole, few mysteries have rivaled Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” since it was published 78 years ago.
Hammett’s novel has spawned three movies, including the classic 1941 version; plays for radio and stage; comics; numerous reference books; several spoofs; and thousands of essays. This month, “The Maltese Falcon” will come under renewed scrutiny in 15 communities across the United States as part of The Big Read, a program launched by the National Endowment for the Arts
The Big Read is a fitting honor for “The Maltese Falcon,” which hasn’t been out of print since its publication in 1930. With its flawed hero, interesting (and unusual) villains and intricate plot, “The Maltese Falcon” set up a template that still endures in the private-detective genre.
The story encompasses three of the major mystery plots motivations: greed, power and lust. Sam Spade, a tough-as-nails private detective with dubious ethics, is pulled into the hunt for a jewel-encrusted statue of a falcon that dates to the Crusades. Whether the statue exists or is merely a myth adds layers of duplicity and betrayal to the tale.
Today, “The Maltese Falcon” remains as modern as ever—a timeless story equally at home in two centuries. It’s rooted in the era in which it is set—1928—yet also seems a part of the 21st century. The novel’s San Francisco locations not only still exist, but several current walking tours will take visitors to the sites mentioned. A strong sense of sexuality—both straight and gay—permeates the tale, which paradoxically also seems downright chaste because there are no graphic sex scenes.
Coming after World War I, the novel reflects a new fascination with exotic locales, a realization that the world was getting smaller and that travel to Asia and Africa was within anyone’s grasp. The falcon’s heritage—steeped in the myth of knights, holy wars and icons—is a forerunner of today’s thrillers wrapped around historical lore, right up to Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code.”
“The Maltese Falcon” has some of the genre’s most quoted lines. Yet the most famous of them—“the stuff dreams are made of”—doesn’t appear in Hammett’s novel. The phrase, adapted from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” is only uttered by Humphrey Bogart at the end of the 1941 movie, yet it perfectly sums up the story.
Samuel Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) was called “the dean of the hard-boiled school of detective fiction” in his New York Times obituary. Hammett himself would have made a good character for his novels; the Times obit quotes an unidentified writer who said “Hammett’s work was not fiction but `life magnified.’ “
Hammett spent eight years as a Pinkerton agent. He suffered from a lung ailment—the result of tuberculosis contracted while serving overseas in World War I—yet he was a chain smoker and an alcoholic. During the 1950s, he spent six months in jail for contempt of court stemming from his affiliation with several left-wing causes. His refusal to cooperate during Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee led to 300 of his novels being removed from State Department libraries around the world. The books were returned after President Dwight Eisenhower said publicly that they should not have been removed.
Hammett’s clean, lean prose often has been compared to Hemingway’s, and vice versa.
He wrote only five novels, all published within a five-year period, as well as scores of short stories and novellas. His most famous character, Sam Spade, appeared only in Hammett’s third novel and, later, a few short stories.
Pre-Hammett, the genre was filled with upper-class sleuths or little old ladies who dabbled in detection. Hammett moved the genre from the urbane drawing rooms to the gritty urban streets, a trend that continues.
But stereotypes of women and gays that would take some 40 years to unravel abound in “The Maltese Falcon.” In Spade’s world, women are either pure—and sexually unattainable—or sexually active and therefore suspect.
The view of homosexuality is even more troubling. In the novel it’s quite clear that villain Joel Cairo is gay, and his sexuality is subject to ridicule and pejoratives. Genre experts maintain that the word “gunsel,” used to refer to the young gangster Wilber, had two meanings—a gun-toting felon and an inexperienced homosexual.
Those stereotypes persisted until Joseph Hansen introduced an openly gay detective in 1970’s “Fadeout,” and Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton and Marcia Muller invented strong women private detectives during the early 1980s.
Hammett didn’t invent the hard-boiled style of mysteries, but he did make readers take notice of it. And “The Maltese Falcon” is still making readers take notice.
WHAT OTHER AUTHORS THINK
“I’m surprised again and again at how few books Hammett needed to write to wield so much influence over the genre, by how much range he demonstrated. I wouldn’t want to live in a world where I had to choose between Hammett and Chandler, but if Sam Spade locked me in his steely gaze and demanded an answer, I’d probably choose Hammett.”—Laura Lippman
“I was an art student in college and struggling through my first sculpture class when the instructor told me: `Just figure out what parts to leave out.’ That advice resonated when I recently reread `The Maltese Falcon.’ It’s not the story or even the Sam Spade character that speaks to me so much as Hammett’s style. He was a master sculptor. He knew what to leave out.”—Kristy Montee, who writes as P.J. Parrish
“The best known crime novel ever written is `The Maltese Falcon.’ As a work of hardboiled fiction, `The Maltese Falcon’ has everything: lies, deceit, double-cross, misdirection, violence, brutality and a breathtaking coldness. It’s about duty and obligation, and doing the right thing even when it costs money and hurts the people for whom we care. Its subtle themes have influenced not only myself, but everyone else who has or will toil in the fertile fields of crime fiction. Hammett’s influence on succeeding generations of crime novelists is undeniable, and this influence almost universally extends from this novel.”—Robert Crais
“I admire lots of things about the book. The effortless, but always muscular prose, the cool but not detached Spade whose grace under pressure never fails. I love his detection technique, which is to `throw a monkey wrench into things’ rather than to rationally follow deductive logic to some orderly end. He’s a bit of a wild man that way. And there’s a little episode in the novel that didn’t make it into the film, a great film in my opinion. The episode has to do with a man named Flitcraft whose life is abruptly changed by a falling beam—a real existential parable slyly tossed off. It’s a book with many pleasures blended in.”—James W. Hall