by Dashiell Hammett
Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon was one of my all-time favorite books back when I was a young and impressionable 20-something, but I decided to read the crime fiction masterpiece again recently to see how it'd hold up under the weight of all that time gone by. Suffice it to say that it remains a tremendously entertaining read, its well-known plot and colorful cast of characters only improving with age. While a little dated in ways both expected (some of the attitudes expressed toward women and gays) and not (the scene where Sam Spade and Detective Polhaus eat pickled pigs' feet in a German restaurant), Hammett's spare, economical prose and stripped-down storytelling are as winning a combination as ever. In addition to the classic dialogue (Wilmer: "Keep on riding me and you're going to be picking iron out of your navel"; Spade, chuckling: "The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter" [p. 120]) and rogues' gallery of unforgettable criminals, one of the things I loved most about rereading this was rediscovering Hammett's narrative sleight of hand. In a passage I'd long forgotten about, for example, Spade tells client/future love interest/iconic femme fatale Brigid O'Shaughnessy a story about an old case of his involving a guy named Flitcraft, a real estate salesman who had abandoned a seemingly happy life as a family man to assume a new identity elsewhere. While the anecdote at first appears to be little more than an unimportant digression, Flitcraft's reasons for trying to escape his life of ease underscore both the randomness of the way things happen in life and the futility of people attempting to become anything other than who they really are--a rather pessimistic point of view that's easy to be forgotten amid all the juicy details of the great tale of greed that follows. That Spade hardly spends as much time talking about the Flitcraft case as I do here makes it even more perfect as an example of Hammett's subtlety in fleshing out flawed characters who aren't just types.
Since the film version of The Maltese Falcon is one of the few adaptations I can think of that lives up to the original novel, it's at least even money that another viewing of that will take place here soon as well. In the meantime, I give this latest encounter with Hammett a New Year's Eve rating of 5 out of 5 stars. Cheers!
Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961)