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The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hamilton

March 23, 2012

The Maltese Falcon is a detective story, and a simply written one. At the center is Sam Spade, a cynical detective whose firm is hired by a beautiful woman to follow a man for innocent enough reasons. Spade’s partner does the job, things go awry, and he ends up dead; Spade investigates the murder, and uncovers a bunch of unsavory characters – not least of all the beautiful woman, who is actually a femme fatale who manipulated him into the investigation. Spade finds himself in over his head, and after being promised money for his troubles he ends up just trying to get out alive. Meanwhile, the police are investigating him for the murder of his partner, and grow increasingly suspicious; Spade never reveals all of what is going on to them, and is frequently operating in a moral and legal grey area, if not outside of the law outright.

This likely sounds rather formulaic – but that is because Hammett pared  the detective  genre down to its essence, if not outright creating it . If House of Games wouldn’t work in 2012 because every con movie follows the formula it created, The Maltese Falcon wouldn’t work today because of the tropes and character types that Falcon itself established.

Aside from establishing a new template for the hard-boiled detective genre, Hammett’s style is wonderful. There is a sparseness to his writing that lets the story come through with stunning clarity, avoiding flowery description and inner monologue to focus on the marrow of the story. There are no descriptions of any character’s thoughts or motivations, other than what they state out loud. It is simply and effectively observational.

Hammett’s writing conveys a unique atmosphere and style in a simple, straightforward manner. The Maltese Falcon is a perfect distillation of his writing and the detective genre, tweaked enough that it created the template everyone recognizes today. Not a word, character beat, or plot point is misplaced or extraneous. It’s hard-boiled detective writing at its finest, and is necessary reading for anyone who loves the genre.

This blog is part of Cannonball Read IV, a group project that can be found here.  This is the first review of fifty-two.

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