Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon

Although Dashiell Hammett’s writing career spanned just a decade, he wrote some of the most influential mystery books of all time. (See my post on The Dain Curse). The Times calls him “a pivotal figure in the development of the detective novel” (Berlins 2008). The book that made him famous – The Maltese Falcon – is included in both The Independent Mystery Bookseller’s Association’s Top 100 Mystery Books of the 20th Century and Modern Library’s Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century. The novel was made into three Hollywood movies, one of them starring the legendary Humphrey Bogart. Drawing upon his experience as a Pinkerton operative, Hammett depicted hard-boiled private investigators, and was one of the first novelists “to realize the literary potential of this new kind of fictional detective” (Geherin 1998, 488).

In The Maltese Falcon, private eye, Sam Spade, is hired by a woman to rescue her sister from a dangerous man named Floyd Thursby. Spade’s partner volunteers to carry out the assignment. Later that night, Spade wakes up to the news that both his partner and Thursby are dead. Since Spade is having an affair with his partner’s wife, he is a prime suspect. The case becomes increasingly complicated after a new client offers Spade a substantial fee to recover the statue of a Maltese falcon. As the novel progresses, interconnections between these seemingly unrelated events emerge. The plot is filled with twists, turns, and unexpected surprises, revealing a world of intrigue, deceit, treachery, and double crossing.

Hammett used a skilfully executed third-person narrative method to relate the story. The narrator never reveals the inner thoughts and motivations of characters, so we must guess at the truth (Rzepka 2005, 195). The opaque narrative voice is perfectly suited to the uncertain and ambiguous world of the novel. We are never sure about the intentions of Sam Spade or any of the other characters. Is Spade motivated by greed and revenge? Whose side is he on? He tells Brigit, “Don’t be too sure I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be” (223). Symons argues that Spade is “nearly but not quite dishonest,” answering to “some kind of justice” (146).

Early in the story, the narrator tells us that “San Francisco’s night-fog, thin, clammy, and penetrant, blurred the street” (14). As readers, we see the world of the novel with a blurred, rather than sharp vision, and are constantly revising our judgments of characters and situations. The Maltese Falcon defies easy answers and tidy conclusions. Readers are presented with a world that is complex, puzzling, and enigmatic.

Ross Macdonald points out that Sam Spade “possesses the virtues and follows the code of the frontier male” (1973, 15). Certainly an earthy realism dominates every aspect of the novel. The language reflects this realism; Hammett’s style is authentic and down-to-earth, completely stripped of artificial and ornate phrasing.

P. D. James argues that Hammett’s
achievement remains remarkable. In a writing career of little more than a decade he raised a commonly despised genre into writing which had a valid claim to be taken seriously as literature. He showed crime writers that what is important goes beyond an ingenious plot, mystery and suspense. More important are the novel’s individual voice, the reality of the world he creates and the strength and originality of the writing. (2009, 85-86)
Geherin speaks for many when he claims that The Maltese Falcon is “one of the finest American detective novels ever published” (1998, 481).

Geherin, David. “Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961). In Mystery and Suspense Writers: The Literature of Crime, Detection, and Espionage, edited by Robin W. Winks, vol. 1: 473-489. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1998.

Berlins, Marcel. “The 50 Greatest Crime Writers.” The Times. April 19, 2008.
Hammett, Dashiell. The Maltese Falcon. 1929. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.

James, P. D. Talking About Detective Fiction. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.

Macdonald, Ross. “The Writer as Detective Hero.” In Crime Writing. Santa Barbara, CA: Capra Press, 1973, 9-24.

Rzepka, Charles J. Detective Fiction. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2005.

Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. New York: Mysterious Press, 1992.