Review: The Maltese Falcon

After my recent good experience with Chandler, it seemed like another noir classic was worth a look.  And so we come to Hammett.

You can’t mistake Hammett for Chandler.  Hammett’s prose is more pedestrian and not inclined to the poetic – even the poetry of a tough guy in the rough city.  After the joy of finding Chandler, it was something of a disappointment to find that Hammett was something else entirely.  The disappointment wore off pretty quickly as I discovered the joys of Hammett.

Hammett is more grounded in the characters than in the literature.  His Sam Spade is a much more flawed character than Chandler’s Marlowe.  One gets the impression that at his core Marlowe’s a Boy Scout; no one gets that impression about Spade.  Spade’s a tough guy to get along with, and not always because there’s some principle at stake.  Sometimes Spade is just ornery.  You get the impression people are surprised when Spade does the right thing; you also get the impression that they’re surprised often.

It doesn’t help his likeability that my 21st century eyes see a pretty chauvinist guy.  I understand the differences of the times, but even accounting for that, Spade views women mostly as sex objects, and not often ones he enjoys being around.  He’s a well enough drawn character that one can dislike him honestly.  I don’t think I’d enjoy hanging out with him, but I believe him.

Some of the other characters are somewhat broad, but never overly so.  No one’s completely what they seem, and the plot twists a great deal more than The Big Sleep.  I definitely had to pay more attention to who was doing what to whom in Falcon.

Overall I enjoyed The Maltese Falcon quite a bit, but it was much less of a transcendent experience than The Big Sleep. An awful lot of this discussion has been comparing Falcon to Sleep, and that’s not particularly fair.  They’re different in focus and perhaps in goals.  I obviously incline toward Sleep‘s rich language and sense of place, but Falcon‘s unflinchingly real lead character and attention to plot is also rewarding.  Both are worth one’s time.


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