Maltese Falcon, The

by Dashiell Hammett

8/10 (Spade’s not as cool as Marlowe)

The obvious comparison is with the only other classic noir I’ve ever read, Chandler’s The Big Sleep, and the difference in them is striking. Though only nine years separates the publication dates, Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe seems immeasurably cooler than the dated Sam Spade. Spade is the smartest guy in the room and probably tougher than Marlowe, but he’s not as fun to hang out with.

Maybe it’s as much a difference in setting as anything, with Maltese reflecting the cooler San Francisco Bay while Big Sleep is edgy and vivid and hip like southern California. Or maybe it’s the writing style: Chandler’s flows seamlessly, almost stream-of-conscious, while Hammett’s prose is somewhat stilted and too adverb-heavy (IMO more egregious than Chandler’s abuse of simile).

Both novels have something to recommend. While I like Marlowe better than Spade, I simultaneously liked Maltese’s plot better than Sleep’s; it is more present, coherent and memorable. I also think Hammett’s supporting characters are stronger, although that could be a function of having seen the movie a few years ago.

One passage I loved — absolutely LOVED — in this book (besides all of the great quips, mostly by Spade) was the Flitcraft story on pages 62-65. It was beautifully created and beautifully written, with a beautiful moral. It was even beautifully surprising, popping out of the noir like that and then dissipating just as fast, without anything similar to follow. Everything about it was exquisite, and I would actually recommend the entire novel for these four pages alone. It’s one of those passages you read and know you will treasure forever. . . check out Maureen’s review for a more eloquent description.

What I didn’t like was the thin romance between Spade and O’Shaughnessy. At no point did I see a real connection developing between them, especially given Spade’s identical behavior toward two other females in the book. Because of this, the last couple of scenes lacked whatever weight they were supposed to have and just seemed unbelievable.

Perhaps the best way to sum up would be a comment on my future reading plans: I plan on eventually reading more exploits of only one of these detectives, and it’s the cooler one.

Original Review

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