Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Book #17 - The Maltese Falcon (Dashiell Hammett)

We've all seen the movie. I saw it years ago, and I remember little of it. In fact, it seems to blend in in my mind with all the other Humphrey Bogart movies I've ever seen. I remember it's got a bird statue, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Mary Astor, and Bogey. Bogey, as always, is cool and tough. So I picked up this book thinking "yeah, this should be pretty good". But I was wrong. This book is great! Oh man, Sam Spade is a Bad Ass. He's like Bogey and Clint Eastwood all rolled up into one. He's cool in a hot situation, he's always thinking, always one step ahead of everyone. You never know where he really he gonna work for the bad guys and take a cut of the action, or is he gonna turn everyone over to the law? At one point, he takes on two people as clients who are both working at cross purposes to one another. He can hold his liquor (and oddly enough, he drinks rum, straight, from a wine glass. I would have taken him for a whiskey man). I've heard the phrase "hard-boiled" before, in reference to detective fiction, and now I know what it means. Damn! I like it!

The dialog in this book is superb. Terse, bold, to the point. In fact, a large part of this book is dialog. There are three murders in the book, and they all occur "offstage". There are only a couple of scenes involving any sort of violence. The suspense is achieved mostly through threats, and intimidation, and the possibility of violence. And there are some quotes in the book that are so bad-ass and hard-boiled that I had to laugh. Here's one:

Cairo, speaking with difficulty because of the fingers on his throat, said: "This is the second time you've put your hands on me." His eyes, though the throttling pressure on his throat made them buldge, were cold and menacing.

"Yes," Spade growled. "And when you're slapped you'll take it and like it."

Oooh, SNAP! Actually, Quentin Tarantino must have had that line in mind in his film Reservoir Dogs, when the crime gang leader looks at Steve Buscemi's character, who's complaining that his code name is "Mr. Pink", and says "You'll be Mr. Pink and you'll like it."

Then there's this line, when one of the criminals, Mr. Gutman, agrees with Sam Spade to turn in one of his accomplices (Wilmer) as a fall guy for some murders, in exchange for Sam giving him the Maltese Falcon. Gutman says to Wilmer:

"Well, Wilmer, I'm sorry indeed to lose you, and I want you to know that I couldn't be any fonder of you if you were my own son; but - well, by Gad! - if you lose a son it's possible to get another - and there's only one Maltese Falcon."

Even Sam Spade laughs at that one.

And Sam's good with The Ladies too. His client, Brigid O'Shaughnessey, is a classic femme fatale, and can never be trusted. So Sam sleeps with her and then turns her over to the cops at the end for committing a murder. He explains to her:

"The chances are you'll get off with life. That means you'll be out again in twenty years. You're an angel. I'll wait for you." He cleared his throat. "If they hang you I'll always remember you."

Oh yeah. Sam was also sleeping with the wife of his murdered partner. It's not clear to me why, since he obviously didn't like either his partner or his partner's wife. That's just the way he rolls.

The narration style of this story is quite interesting. There are a lot of scenes where Sam is talking to someone and it's remarked that his face is blank, or gives no traces of what he's thinking, or is expressionless, or something like that. The narrator never reveals what the characters are thinking. So it's not an omniscient narrator, or even a really human one. It's more like the events are described as an observer would see them, and that's that. It reminded me of watching a movie. Hopefully that's not just because I saw the movie.

Anyway, this book is totally a page turner, and if you're looking for a few hours of entertainment, you could hardly do better. I heartily recommend it. I plowed through it in all the spare moments I could muster over the course of three days. Now I miss it. So get out your whiskey, or a wine glass full of rum, and go for it!


Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

"You eediot! You bloated eembecile!" Peter Lorre was great. Maybe that line isn't in the book.

Have you tried "Red Harvest"? It's maybe even crazier than "The Maltese Falcon".

Rohan Maitzen said...

I think one reason the movie is so good is that much of the dialogue does come straight from the novel. It's interesting how unlike Sam Spade's description Bogart looks ("blonde Satan"?) but how completely he nonetheless occupies the role in my mind when I read the book now.

What did you make of the Flitcraft episode?

Robby Virus said...

There are some actors that play a role so well it's hard to separate the actor from the role. Bogey and Sam Spade are one. Another that immediately comes to my mind is Eli Wallach as Tuco in "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly".

The Flitcraft episode was a curious side trip in the novel. Sam Spade tells Brigid the story of a man, Flitcraft, who is almost hit by a falling beam as he walks by a construction site. Flitcraft had a home, a wife, and kids, and he's shocked by how fragile life has been shown to be by this falling beam. He disappears, just walking away from all he knows, telling no one and taking nothing with him. He goes to San Francisco, does odd jobs for awhile, and eventually settles in Seattle where he marries another woman and settles down again into family life. Spade says the beam told him how fragile life was, and his reaction was to act accordingly, and then when no other beams fell, it told him how routine life was, and he settled back into his old pattern. I puzzled over the meaning of this parable when I read it, and I still do. The best I can think is that he knows Brigid is a habitual liar, and he knows she killed Archer (although we don't find out he knows that until the end). To me this parable is his way of telling her that people don't leave the patterns they're used to, and her pattern is lying. When she meets Spade, and falls for him, this may break her usual pattern of using people and maintaining an emotional detachment, but she can't help but fall back into her habitual pattern of lying. Anyway, that's my best guess. I liked the parable itself...very existential.