With ample time in isolation during the pandemic, there has never been a better moment to crack open some classic books and lose yourself in them. New content is constantly coming out, and there existed a pressure before to keep up as opposed to looking back and examining our foundations.
With that in mind, I read “The Maltese Falcon” by Dashiell Hammett, which contributed heavily to the world of hardboiled detective fiction and its adaptation is widely considered the first major American film noir. A prestigious legacy— but does it hold up for a modern audience?
The plot follows Sam Spade, a private detective conjured from the memories of Hammett’s time as a Pinkerton Detective. Spade lacks any kind of sentimentality, but intimately understands others’ emotions as a means to manipulate or extract information out of them. He’s a passionless P.I driven totally by profit, which is how he willingly gets roped into a criminal scheme to obtain the stolen Maltese Falcon which is an artifact of unparalleled value.
The falcon is brought to Spade’s attention by femme fatale Brigid O'Shaughnessy, who hires him to keep an eye on the multitude of other opportunists hoping to snatch it from under her. This trust is not well founded though, for Spade presents himself to every criminal as a possible ally. If he is motivated by greed, or is simply drawing them in to gain information, is left ambiguous.
All of this criminal drama and finessing is back dropped by a well detailed depiction of San Francisco on the cusp of modernization. There is a palpable urban atmosphere to this story that can be related to by a current audience, yet serves as an interesting glance into a less technological past, when leg work had to be done by hitting the street and talking face to face.
“The Maltese Falcon”, with its intense criminal plot, questionable but capable anti-hero, and distinct setting entertains highly even today. Hammett’s style is terse and direct, keeping the story running at breakneck pace without as much ambling as you might see in other classic literature. If you’re looking for an exciting read loaded with style, I cannot recommend the book enough.