This may be a shallow thought of me to have had, but it's honest: when I picked up this book at a library sale (because the front cover was awesome and I love the artwork on old paperbacks), I figured I'd never read it because it was probably boring. I know, don't judge me too harshly yet. I have this strange (and incorrect) assumption sometimes that 'older' pieces of media or art are going to be less interesting to my 2014 brain; silent films, books written previous to 1940 or so, Shakespearean theatre, etc. This mindset probably comes from our hyped-up culture where things are constantly getting bigger, more intense, more immediate.
Well, I was wrong. Totally wrong.
Last week I picked this book up off my shelf and decided to give it a whirl, and within a chapter I knew I was hooked for several reasons. First of all, it's practically the story that all other hard-boiled American-crime detective novels and movies stem from, or at least one of the founding stories to that genre. Elements of The Maltese Falcon only seem familiar because we've seen them mimicked and copied in many forms and iterations. The opening scene is classic and just right: a woman in trouble walks into a ruddy detective's office for help. Secondly, aforementioned detective Sam Spade is a badass; a real man's-man, but not a male chauvinist. He's smarter than he looks on the outside, even-tempered, witty, and just reserved enough to keep people guessing.
Brigid O'Shaughnessy, the woman who comes to Spade's office in distress, is complex and frustrating in that she is constantly weaving new versions of her story to her own advantage, and you're often not sure how much of what leaves her lips is truth (although Sam calls her out on more than a few deceptions). She was fun and infuriating at the same time, using her snappy personality and good looks to sway the hearts of men (even Sam's, for a time).
For a book published in 1929, Falcon has an incredible amount of realism and tiny, specific details that add so much texture to the story and could only have come from an author with a constantly observant mind. I could never have a guessed a mystery novel from this era could be so literary, and so fun to read. While the plot gets complicated toward the last third, the writing is easy to follow and the story isn't so twisty that it leaves the reader in a tangled mess of uncertainty.
Dashiell Hammett is considered by some to be the pioneer of the detective story, and his work inspired a flood of such stories throughout the 1920's to 1940's. We'll just overlook that part about when he quit writing fiction to join the Communist Party, was blacklisted by the government, thrown in jail, etcetera.
Anyway, this read was sharp as a whip-crack, and so much fun. I am thankful that I have never seen the film with Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, and am now anxious to see how it translates. Mystery fan or not, if you've got good taste in books, you'll find a lot here to appreciate; there's a reason it has remained in print for 85 years.