Review: The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

The Maltese Falcon - Dashiell Hammett
Read from April 20 to 21, 2013


In the past when I've read about hardboiled detectives, I remember a saying something like: there are Raymond Chandler fans and there are Dashiell Hammett fans, but rarely will there be fans of both. I'm a big Chandler fan but I've liked quite a few films made from Hammett material, so I thought it was about time to actually read one of his books. Problem is I'm not sure I'm starting with the right one, since the Maltese Falcon film is so legendary.

Ebook, read via Open Library.

So that first paragraph was pre-read, and now I'm post-read. And now I can say with assurance; reading so much Chandler has ruined me. I now expect even pulp detective stories to be well written.

Short version: Plot gets all the stars, prose problems keep it from being higher. The ending - which still is really good - took it from 2 to 3.

Hammett is very good at writing both the plot and conversation - but outside of that both his writing style and his word choices can be extremely awkward, and take you out of the story. (This is aside from any 1930s slang issues.) Such that the words used are probably trying to evoke something other than what I'm reading into them. Example: physical descriptions of Spade don't seem handsome or appealing, and instead seem weird and unattractive. This is true even though he's clearly an anti-hero. (Multiple descriptions in quotes below, besides the next paragraph's example.)

Example: shoulders. Men of action straighten themselves, straighten their shoulders, etc. Spade is described multiple times as having "thick sloping shoulders" (p. 79, 165) - well, I read that as relaxed or non-muscular. Or bad posture, or someone with a back problem. The stereotype for men is straight or angular shoulders - women's are rounded and soft. Sloping - well, that's neither here nor there, and a muddy descriptor for me. (Which made me wonder if Hammett's own shoulders were sloping.) I think Hammett wanted me to imagine a football player-type physique - but by not giving me any other adjectives, I never saw that image and instead kept puzzling; "ok he can't keep meaning this to sound unattractive." "Thick" is I think supposed to read as "muscles" when it could as easily read "fat." Of course it doesn't, because when Hammett describes fat he goes all out, heading into insanely grotesque territory. See quote below, p. 104, "The fat man was flabbily fat..."

So I figured out pretty quickly that I was going to be both amused and confused by Hammett's descriptions of people.

I'm not ok with Hammett's portrayal of women. Again, I get that Spade's the usual anti-hero. So I didn't fault Spade for
sleeping with his partner's wife, or ditching said annoying wife, or sleeping with client/woman in trouble/Brigid O'Shaughnessy while lying to her almost as often as she's lying to him
(show spoiler)
- that's all par for the course of this sort of detective. No, I had the problem with Spade grabbing and yelling at his secretary - see quote below on p. 116-7. In this genre you don't rough up good girls on your side, and that's what he does. This may be another attempt to show us how strong and manly Spade is, but doesn't work for me. (Again, blame Chandler.) Though, like just I noted earlier,
this is a guy sleeping with his partner's wife
(show spoiler)
- so he is indeed a disloyal shmuck already. (And Spade knows this about himself, and judges himself - another reason I gave this 3 and not 2 stars.) Spade's bad at apologies too. Perhaps Hammett thinks he's written Spade as charming - but honestly, I now have a higher standard for both wit and charm in this genre (again, blame Chandler), and Hammett's nowhere near reaching either. Yet Hammett does have the ability to write well, and you can see that very clearly in parts of the book like the story of Mr. Flitcraft (p. 64). In fact that part is such a good piece of writing it stands out and makes you wish there were more like it. (It makes you sad that there aren't more moments like that.)

So what about the Hammett writing style in particular is annoying? He has some sentences in the passive voice which doesn't match the surrounding sentences that aren't passive. So they stick out like a sore thumb. I can't tell if he's trying to tell me something by doing this, or just trying to make the story sound a certain way at that point, or there's no reason. He uses some words to describe things that don't quite work as clear descriptions, and I can't tell if that's a joke somehow or not. And then there are sentences that are just plain awkwardly and badly written that I can't believe anyone would purposefully write that way. This almost always seems to happen when he's describing something - people, a room, etc. (Again, see quotes below and under Reading Progress.)

Another example: the use of character names. One moment Spade's secretary is Effie Perine, the next she's "the girl." It's rarely just Effie, though she is sometimes "sweetheart." These make her seem like a character in a screenplay more than a character in a novel that we're supposed to pretend is real and full of life. She is the girl. One of the villains is "the boy." These seem more like objects than people, and they are moved here and there. There always seems to be that distance between us and them, which this name use emphasizes. And when the passive voice is mixed in with this - well, it doesn't help matters. It just makes it seem more like stage directions than prose.

Every time I would be enjoying the plot - because again, the plot is good - these sorts of issues would smack me in the face and take me out of the story. Like I said, I get that this is all pulp magazine fare of its day - but so was Chandler's work. And like I said, Chandler has ruined me - I now expect more. At the same time I also totally understand why Hammett was adored by scriptwriters, because plot and conversation are key for both radio and screenplay work.

Is it still worth it to read this as a fan of the film? Yes definitely. You'll see all the rough bits that were worked into the film, and frankly agree with everything that was edited to be shorter or less grotesque (the fat man).

I plan to read more Hammett in the future, just to see if this book is a fair sample of his work. But I have the sense that I'll still be amused with his writing style. Or maybe just wish that he'd had someone to edit him.

Quotes to ponder:

p. 3:
"Samuel Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down - from high flat temples - in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan."
Describing nostril shape is a new area for me, the reader. I immediately find this goofy. And no, satan is not capitalized in this paragraph.

p 4, to contrast Spade, a description of The Woman (note, that's me calling her The Woman, but there's usually just one that's an enigma in this kind of detective story, the rest are window dressing):
"...She advanced slowly, with tentative steps, looking at Spade with cobalt-blue eyes that were both shy and probing.

She was tall and pliantly slender, without angularity anywhere. Her body was erect and high-breasted, her legs long, her hands and feet narrow. She wore two shades of blue that had been selected because of her eyes. The hair curling from under her blue hat was darkly red, her full lips more brightly red. White teeth glistened in the crescent her timid smile made."
Hammett seems better at describing women. At least I can feel sure that I'm supposed to get that this woman is attractive. Though I have no idea why describing teeth is necessary - people usually assume those are nice and only describe them if they're not or are fang-like. Also he has the oddest word placement: "the crescent her timid smile made?" No idea if this had something to do with him leaving school at 13 or if he's going for an effect.

p 12:
"He took off his pajamas. The smooth thickness of his of his arms, legs, and body, the sag of his big rounded shoulders, made his body like a bear's. It was like a shaved bear's: his chest was hairless. His skin was childishly soft and pink."
Er, I didn't think I was supposed to be kinda grossed out by Spade? Aren't I supposed to find him attractive? Hammett has an odd idea of what's attractive in a man - or maybe this is one of those "it was another time" moments. Or he's just bad at description? Or more people go for soft-shaved-bear-men than I realize? Note: the rounded shoulders description gets repeated a lot more in pages to come. In a way that - because of how it's written - doesn't sound like brawny or burly, and instead like posture problems.

p 42, Effie, Spade's secretary, tells him the next visitor, Joel Cairo, is "queer." Hello, 1930s, it's stereotype time.
"Mr. Joel Cairo was a small-bones dark man of medium height. His hair was black and smooth and very glossy. His features were Levantine. ...His black coat, cut tight to narrow shoulders, flared a little over slightly plump hips. His trousers fitted his round legs more snugly than was the current fashion. The uppers of his patent-leather shoes were hidden by fawn spats. He held a black derby hat in a chamois-gloved hand and came towards Spade with short, mincing, bobbing steps. The fragrance of chypre came with him."
This left me wondering when spats had suddenly become the fashion accessory of villains. Because good guys never wear spats. And frankly only slightly humorous villains wear them because the word does sound amusing. Oh and the portion I cut out? A sentence about jewelry, because of course real mean don't wear jewelry. Meanwhile I think Hammett spends more time on Cairo's description than any of the other characters.

p. 64, the story of Mr. Flitcraft - this is an excellent bit/story.
"...He, the good citizen-husband-father, could be wiped out between office and restaurant by the accident of a falling beam. He knew then that men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them.
...Life could be ended for him at random by a falling beam: he would change his life at random by simply going away."
More of the writing should be like this - so apparently as long as Spade is talking or telling us a story, it's good.

p 93, Hammett's descriptions of men always have me stopping and rereading with a "wait, what?":
"His clothing was neither new nor of more than ordinary quality, but it, and his manner of wearing it, was marked by a hard masculine neatness."
I am completely and utterly unfamiliar with this specific form of neatness.

p. 104, and this is how Hammett describes Mr Gutman:
"The fat man was flabbily fat with bulbous pink cheeks and lips and chins and neck, with a great soft egg of a belly that was all his torso, and pendant cones for arms and legs. As he advanced to meet Spade all his bulbs rose and shook and fell separately with each step, in the manner of clustered soap-bubbles not yet released from the pipe through which they had been blown. His eyes, made small by fat puffs around them, were dark and sleek."
So much to be critical with here, but I'll just say "all his bulbs" and that eyes can be "sleek" - weird word choices, and ones which pull me out of the narrative rather than adding to it. I'll just add that the phrase "his bulbs jostled one another" is typical in what you get in further descriptions in the next few pages.

p 116-7:
"Spade took two long steps and caught Effie Perine by the shoulders. "She didn't get there?" he bawled into her frightened face.

[plot stuff here regarding "oh no, where is Person X!"]

...He said "You ought to know better than to pay any attention to me when I talk like that."

"If you think I pay any attention to you you're crazy, she replied, "only" - she crossed he arms and felt her shoulders, and her mouth twitched uncertainly - "I won't be able to wear an evening gown for two weeks, you big brute."

"He grinned humbly, said, "I'm no damned good, darling," made an exaggerated bow, and went out again."
And here's where I note that Chandler has ruined me, because Spade's actions in this scene would be a big "this is the villain" tipoff in a Chandler story. In case you don't get it, Spade has actually grabbed Effie so hard he's bruised/hurt her, aside from scaring her. That's her way of informing him both of that hurt and how much physical damage there was, and then that was his way of apologizing.

...Ok I'm now at the point where I can't figure out what more I'm supposed to be reading from the text. Because all of Hammett's descriptions of men seem to be - well, they're all weird. I can't figure out what's supposed to attract and what's supposed to repel. Mainly because I'm repelled by most all of them. Anyhow, I can't help but feel there's more going on in this description, especially because it's the longest action/fight scene that's occurred so far.
p 120:
"...Then Spade asked pleasantly: "How long have you been off the goose-berry lay, son?"

The boy did not show that he had heard the question.

...Spade lagged a little, so that when they were within fifteen feet of Gutman's door, he was perhaps a foot and a half behind the boy. He leaned sidewise suddenly and grasped the boy from behind by both arms, just beneath the boys elbows. He forced the boy's arms forward so that the boy's hands, in his overcoat-pockets, lifted up before him. The boy struggled and squirmed but he was impotent in the big man's grip. The boy kicked back, but his feet went between Spade's spread legs.

Spade lifted the boy straight up from the floor and brought him down hard on his feet again. The impact made little noise on the thick carpet. At the moment of impact Spade's hands slide down and got a fresh grip on the boy's wrists. The boy, teeth set hard together, did not stop straining against the big man's hands, but he could not tear himself loose, could not keep the man's hands from crawling down over his own hands. The boy's teeth ground together audibly, making a noise that mingled with the noise of Spade's breathing as Spade crushed the boy's hands."
So is it this scene that made Hammett write descriptions of the boy having "hard masculine neatness" (p 93) to wave a flag that "no no, this is NOT the same as Mr Cairo" or am I supposed to see some sexuality in there? Because I can't tell anymore. Also yes, that is supposed to be "sidewise," or that's how it is in the book. ...Meanwhile I'll just note that Hammett wrote a hellova lot less about kissing The Woman, than about fighting the boy.

...So that sentence about "goose-berry lay" - which I didn't understand - turns out to be relevant. Thanks to a google search:Book link here, p 250 of The Web of Iniquity: Early Detective Fiction by American Women, By Catherine Rossnickerson (I think this is from a footnote):
"Both punk and gunsel, the terms by which Hammett and Chandler's characters refer to young men in the employ of villains, have definite connotations of homosexuality. Both were used in the nineteenth century to refer derisively to young tramps who formed sexual pairs with older men on the road; it was in the mid-twentieth century that punk came to mean a worthless, no-account young man. The connection to the world of the vagabonds is underlined when Spade taunts Wilmer by asking "[H]ow long have you been off the goose-berry lay, son?"(120) - that is to say, in tramps' lingo, "How long has it been since you were stealing garments off clotheslines?" ...Tramps, vagabonds, and drifters became increasingly visible to mainstream culture in the Depression, and according to Estelle Freedman, they were associated with dangerous and deviant sexual values."
So I'm not just imagining the sexuality in that scene.

p 133:
"...Sweetheart, you've got an uncle who teaches history or something over at the University?"
"A cousin. Why?"
"If we brightened his life with
an alleged historical secret four centuries old
(show spoiler)
could we trust him to keep it dark awhile?"
"Oh yes, he's good people."

p 159:

"...He put his other arm around Effie Perine and crushed her body against his. "We've got the damned thing, angel," he said.
"Ouch!" she said, "you're hurting me."
And that's the second accidentally hurt Effie scene.

p. 213-4, some of the big speech at the end. Nothing exactly plot spoilery quoted but I'm putting it under spoiler quote anyway, because it answers character questions about Spade that have been floating around unasked and unanswered. This is only the start of the first paragraph, dialog only:
"He said: "Listen. This isn't a damned bit of good.
You'll never understand me, but I'll try once more and then we'll give it up. Listen. When a man's partner is killed he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it's bad business to let the killer get away with it. It's bad all around - bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere. Third, I'm a detective and expecting me to run criminals down and then let them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go. It can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done, but it's not the natural thing.
(show spoiler)
The full Seven Reasons in this long speech (it goes on for several more paragraphs/another page) are entirely hardboiled code. Good stuff, and I only wish there'd been more dialog like this. It's a much longer speech than I'd have thought after seeing the film. No way something of this length could work in a film of course, totally needed trimming. But really enjoyable to see it's original form.

Since you made it this far - I couldn't resist making a list:
Odd Things Eyes Are Doing in Dashiell Hammett's Maltese Falcon
(At one point that list was a separate page at GoodReads, but since they have a habit of disappearing things over there without warning - I'm posting it below:
This is horribly snarky of me, but I kept amusing myself by keeping track of how Hammett described his characters' eyes in various parts of The Maltese Falcon. This isn't every instance, just the ones I noticed. It made me think of a lot of people with LEDs behind their eyes, what with all the glittering and glowing.

In a more serious vein, these are examples of the problems I have with Hammett's writing style. It's not the eyes that are doing the work in these scenes - it's the human facial expressions and emotions. Somehow in Hammett all that is just work that's done by the eyes, and only seen within the eyes. And it sounds just as awkward when read in context. I do get what Hammett's trying to tell us - you can't read these people's faces because they're usually trying to hide those feelings. It's just that he's chosen to explain this in an awkward manner.

Eye color:
Sam Spade - yellow-grey
Lieutenant Dundy - green
Brigid O'Shaughnessy - blue

Numbers in front of the sentence are the pages.

19 "His eyes were warm green discs."
20 "He made his eyes dull with boredom."
22 "Dundy looked with hard green eyes..."
22 "Spade looked at the Lieutenant with yellow-grey eyes that held an almost exaggerated amount of candor."
33 "Perplexity was added to the misery and fright in her eyes."
40 "His yellow-grey eyes were hard and implacable."
40 "...looking after him with dazed blue eyes."
46 "Spade's yellow-grey eyes were somber."
56 "Her eyes, focused on his profile, became frightened, then cautious."
57 "Her eyes were cobalt-blue prayers."
64 "Her eyes were wide and deep."
65 "His dark eyes seemed all irises..."
74 "...his yellow-grey eyes glinted..."
76 "...looking at spade with green eyes hard and bright and satisfied..."
80 "A light was glinting in his green eyes."
82 "His eyes were sultry."
89 "His eyes burned yellowly."
93 "...points of yellow light began to dance in his eyes"
99 "She looked at him with cloudy eyes."
104 "His eyes, made small by fat puffs around them, were dark and sleek."
129 "He shut his eyes hard, opened them again. Their muddiness had thickened."
144 "...aggressive blue eyes..."
153 "His tone brought a brief uneasy glint into her hot eyes..."
156 "His eyes were dark and bloodshot and mad above lower lids that hung down to show pink inner membrane."
158 "...his eyes glowed."
158 "His eyes were shining."
176 "His eyes were hot and earnest under a reddening forehead."
211 "his glittering eyes"
211 "the faintest of dubious glints in her eyes"
213 "His eyes burned madly."