As I have oft noted here, I am always intrigued by book packaging especially a series of books packaged or marketed together. So when I was trolling through the local Half-Priced Books and came across the Orion Crime Masterworks Series I was intrigued. The series is “dedicated to bringing back into print, for a new generation of readers, some of the greatest crime stories ever written.” Sounds good right? It did to me so to get things started I picked up The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett.
The Maltese Falcon is one of, if not the, quintessential hard boiled detective stories. For those unfamiliar with the plot, San Fransisco detective Sam Spade is hired by the attractive Miss Wonderley to track down her sister who has supposedly eloped with an unsavory character named Floyd Thursby. But when Spade’s partner and Thrusby end up dead it becomes clear things are not what they seem. Sam is soon caught up in the deadly hunt for the priceless Maltese Falcon – a jewel encrusted statue of some historical significance and hence high monetary value. No no one seems to be giving Spade the whole story, including his client Ms. Wonderley, and a number of people, including the police, seem intent on blaming him for the murder of his partner.
What is interesting about the work is its style and tone. As noted above, Sam Spade is the classic hard boiled detective. He walks a very fine line between the law and his clients. He has contacts within the police but he has to look out for his own interests first. He is also a bit of a ladies man which frequently gets him into trouble. He is stubborn and fiercely independent which also gets him into trouble. In the end, however, Spade figures it all out and manages to get the bad guys if not the girl.
I don’t know if Hammett invented the hard boiled detective story but he certainly seems to have crystallized the character. How many detective and mystery stories have as their lead character one modeled after Sam Spade intentionally or not? More than one could count I would venture. It seems that this genre struck a nerve and has been popular every since. From books to movies to TV this tough guy image is a standard.
It is such a standard in fact, that reading Hammett in isolation the story seems almost clichÃ©d. Despite this pitfall, the story holds up remarkably well to the test of time. What makes it interesting is that you never quite know what is going on or who is playing who. Hammett doesn’t give away the ending but instead has Spade play his cards close to the vest. As a result you focus on the characters and the drama but the plot still holds an element of suspense; Especially as it concerns Spade’s relationship with Ms. Wonderley.
All in all I found The Maltese Falcon to be an enjoyable mystery and an interesting look back at a classic that has had a huge impact on the detective genre and crime writing in general. Plus, it helped me check one more off the list of the 100 Greatest English Language Novels of the Twentieth Century!