The Maltese Falcon
© 1929 Dashiell Hammeett
A beautiful woman whose life is in danger; a streetwise and world-worn private eye who will take on a globe-trotting criminal conspiracy to rescue her, and a string of murders that implicates them both: detective novels don’t get more archetypal than this. The Maltese Falcon is the original hardboiled detective story, and despite being nearly ninety years old it ages splendidly.
Sam Spade is a private investigator who is tasked with assisting a damsel in distress, but when his partner is knocked off on the first night of the investigation, and Spade’s only clue to the woman’s distress killed that same night, things get complicated fast. The police want to pin both murders on Spade, and just for kicks there are gunmen following him around. Despite initially giving Sam a line about being stalked by a sister’s boy friend, Miss Damsel is involved in a high-stakes heirloom theft that will deliver either fortune or death to all concerned.
Granted, when I started reading this I was in the mood for a vintage detective novel, so my delight in reading it had a head start. Even so, I can’t imagine not being impressed with the language and style employed here. Considering that this first debuted in a magazine, it’s hard to believe that publishers gave Hammett room to describe actions like rolling a cigarette with such articulation, but these sprinkled little diversions are like a pocket square; they’re small, but add enormous aesthetic appeal. The characters are vivid, popping out in both appearance and personality. The plot itself is a tangled whodunit that ultimately sees everyone a little frustrated, but displays that for all his cynicism, Spade is still driven by his own very firm set of morality. The Maltese Falcon is stylish, fast, and gloriously fun.