Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
by Annette Ferran
The Maltese Falcon
The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett (#56 on the Modern Library’s list), is one of the few entries that could be described as genre fiction. It is known as detective noir, along with Hammett’s many other works (and with The Postman Always Rings Twice, reviewed in an earlier column) it adheres to that genre’s standards of scene and atmosphere (dark, rainy, and cynical) and character (isolated, noble, and cynical). It is also a hugely entertaining novel that holds up to repeated readings.
The story is so complex that you’re left with the nagging notion that it doesn’t actually hang together. But it’s a story in the best sense of “story”: what happens? and then what happens? and then what happens?
The Maltese falcon is an object of mystery and value that has a whole host of characters spinning around it. The story starts with the private detective Sam Spade – by now an iconic American figure – who, we’re told, “looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan,” and a mysteriously fetching young woman who has lost her sister to a dubious romantic entanglement. Soon Spade’s partner, Archer, enters, and soon he meets with a mysteriously bad end. She is just a shade to the wrong side of innocence (or is she?), suspecting the worst kinds of depravity but unable to bring herself to articulate her fears. Spade has seen it all and worse, and in his world-weariness is able to emit a sympathetic placidity even as he himself is accused of bad acts. No wonder a string of clients in dire trouble put their faith in this man.
The Maltese falcon is an object whose value may be intrinsic but is more likely gained by the interest people have in it, a value that increases the more people that are interested. And there lies its value as a literary device, representing what is wrong with society – American society in particular – that human life can be so willingly wasted in pursuit of a mere hunk of metal.
The people interested are many. Their stories intersect with one another, unraveling and remeshing as secrets are uncovered by this relentless detective. Their goodness and their badness may at times be one and the same. They are described in exquisite detail, their physical features reflecting, as once was considered geniunely reliable (see Henry VIII, see physiognomic research of past centuries), their inner character.
Hammett the writer is famously known to have been black-listed during the McCarthy era for famously not naming names. His life and character, his reputed romantic and sentimental nature along with his hard-headed loner mentality and his intimate knowledge of the profession of detection (he was once a Pinkerton agent) show through the pages of his creations. The prose is the artwork. You can learn to roll a perfect cigarette from this book, how to wear a hat, how to pick your way, figuratively and literally, through the mess of the world. You can get drunk off the copious liquors imbibed and those half-drunk and left behind. You can get a headache from the kicks the characters take.
Spade always has an attractive woman on his arm and several more lined up waiting for their chance, notably his late partner’s bereaved wife, but in the end he is alone, doing his job, impelled by his own sense of justice in this grimy world.
Georges Simenon wrote similar stories of similar atmospheres in France. The Swedish writer Henning Mankell currently writes in the same genre reflecting the noir of his country and time. Hammett’s is an American view. The unique Americanness of his era carries through to our understanding of our country today. Noir is a great genre, allowing deep and broad exploration in a highly readable form, and this novel is a masterful example.
Annette Ferran lives in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and works in Philadelphia as an editor for a medical publisher. She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons of Black Ink, a Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL.