Some novels can stand the test of time, even when frequently imitated, and some cannot. I am sad to say that for me The Maltese Falcon has been crushed under the weight of nearly a century of change.
Perhaps I am what some call a ‘dirty feminist,’ but Spade’s treatment of women left me cold. I don’t care so much about Brigid O’Shaughnessy, because she played the game right along with the rest of them, but Effie (Trinket? Hunger Games, anyone?) was just doing her job, and the sweetheart/darlin’ condescending bullshit drives me crazy. I hear you already typing up a response to say that this novel was published pre-World War 2, when things were different for women, and that I shouldn’t fault the novel for being a product of its time. True, but I am unable to view it from any other perspective. And it was exactly this type of treatment that led to the women’s liberation movement.
Reading an article from The Telegraph, they say that Hammett’s novel shaped film noir and the hard-boiled detective story in four ways: the hero is an outsider, the dangerous woman, vernacular dialogue, and a confusing plot. These are all tropes we still suffering with today and is precisely what I meant when saying that The Maltese Falcon suffers under the weight of nearly a century. So many movies have tried ot use the same trick with varying degrees of success (all the way up to movies like Dick Tracy, Roger Rabbit and Basic Instinct).
I have been talking a lot about movies, but detective stories are the same. Hammett may be writing about unlikeable characters, and writing in a time and manner that sets my teeth on edge, but it is a style of writing that few can do well, and when they can’t do well, it is excruciating to read. Every action Sam Spade takes serves to both drive the plot forward and/or displays his character. Even my favorite J.K. Rowling has failed at smoothly transitioning between knowledge and action of her detective. Near the end of The Silkworm, her second Cormoran Strike novel, Strike has a light bulb moment, and then we’re not clued into what he’s figured out until several chapters later. In this instance she suffered from what I call ‘Dan Brown Syndrome.’ In one of his two books that pre-dated the Da Vinci Code, Deception Point or Digital Fortress (I think the former but it now escapes me) we are in the very heart of the climax – an action-packed scene, and he stops to throw in back-story. So annoying, and distracting. While necessary to the plot, it was shoved in as what seemed to be an afterthought, or could have been sprung at a better time. In any case, Hammett’s novel does not suffer this same fat. It is as lean as possible and keeps you guessing until the end, even if the characters are repugnant and not as engaging today as they may have been in the depression-era.
Worth the read, but not high on the reread list.