The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett was published in 1930. It is a detective story that helped to popularize the “hard-boiled” private detective — the detectives are unsympathetic, detached, and determined to achieve justice by any possible means. The book is commonly associated with the 1941 movie, where Detective Sam Spade is played by Humphrey Bogart.
The novel opens with Sam Spade at his and his partner’s, Miles Archer, private eye office. A woman named Miss Wonderly comes in to hire Spade and Archer to find Floyd Thursby, who has run away with her underage sister. Miss Wonderly is of course, a knock-out beauty, and of course Spade is suspicious of her. They take the job, though, because she has cash.
Within the next few pages, Spade is awoken that night to be told that Archer, who was tailing Thursby, has been found shot at the bottom of a ditch and Spade is not exactly sad about it. You also find out that he has been having an affair with Archer’s wife. Ugh. Thursby is found shot and killed also, and the police suspect that it was Spade who shot him in retaliation for killing Archer.
The Maltese Falcon in question is a figurine of a bird that is covered with jewels. It had been a gift to the King of Spain, but has been covered with black enamel to conceal its value. Several people are looking for it and approach Spade for help finding it, including Miss Wonderly, who’s name is actually Brigid O’Shaughnessy, a man named Joel Cairo, who is a thinly veiled homosexual, and Cairo’s boss, a large man named Casper Gutman. It turns out Gutman was the one who discovered the falcon and had sent O’Shaughnessy, Thursby, and Cairo to get it, but O’Shaughnessy and Thursby decided to keep it for themselves. Gutman is now both trying to find the figurine and kill O’Shaughnessy and Thursby.
Many people die in the events of the story, and Spade finds the figurine. When he goes to give it to Gutman (because he can pay the most), Gutman discovers that it’s a fake. After all that. What. Gutman and Cairo leave town. Spade turns in O’Shaughnessy for Archer’s murder, because, even though he wasn’t particularly fond of Archer, “when a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.” He also mentions that it’s bad for business to let the killer get away with it. What a prince.
This novel, though a good story, is frustrating on several levels. The narration tells what all of the characters are doing but doesn’t have much about what they’re thinking or feeling. In some cases, Spade is almost like a sociopath in his self-absorption. There is very little morality in any of the characters and very little discussion of emotions or feelings. Spade is having an affair with Archer’s wife, but he isn’t particularly fond of her — in fact, when Archer is killed and his wife shows up to the office crying, Spade asks his secretary if she can deal with her.
The Maltese Falcon is one of the books that helped to popularize the hard-boiled detective story, and the movie is a very popular film noir. Perhaps I’m just not the demographic that is meant to read and enjoy this novel, because the whole time I read it, I was disgusted with pretty much every character that was introduced, Spade in particular. Sam Spade is, if I may be so bold, an asshole. In fact, it took me a long time to read this because I got so annoyed with the characters that I kept putting the book down and reading other things that did not make me feel like punching the narrators in the face.