Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” is one of those books that has its fingerprints over everything. In the same way that Melville’s turns of phrase have trickled down to every novelist of the 20th and 21st centuries, the situations and machinations of Sam Spade have guided the development of everything in our culture that touched -even secondhand- the world of detective noir.
It’s a different kind of reading experience when one is reading -for the first time- one of the seminal and highly influential cultural touchstones. Having an understanding of and a familiarity with a work’s derivatives and spiritual heirs might not let me see the work in an impartial light, but it doesn’t detract from the work’s strength -if anything, it underscores it. To be sure, this also means that the bar gets set rather high. Fortunately, this little book clears that bar without any apparent effort.
“The Maltese Falcon” is genre and it’s an artifact of its own time, but none of these out to be seen as strikes against it for a 21-century reader. The prose is solid, full of incredibly efficient and clever deployments of language, and Hammett can sketch a fully-dimensional (albeit often an over-the-top) character in only a few sentences, fleshing them out wonderfully through the continuing action. On the subject of plot, Hammett needs no defense by me. The story is compelling and the pacing is second to none. It’s a shame that so many authors of a “literary” pedigree neglect this aspect of narrative.
Recommendation: Read it. Read outside of your comfortable norm. Read good genre fiction. Read old genre fiction that holds up well.