Dashiell Hammett’s beloved detective novel follows hard-boiled sleuth Sam Spade as he navigates through a web of murder and deception. He finds himself surrounded by a colourful cast of characters, such as a mischievous femme fatale, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, who has as many aliases as Spade has clever retorts. Then there’s Joel Cairo, a slimy and cowardly criminal who enlists Spade’s assistance. Perhaps most eccentric of all is Kasper Gutman ( also known as “The Fat Man”), a gluttonous fiend, seduced by the lure of money. What these three peculiar villains have in common is their desire to get their hands on a falcon-shaped ornament, the titular MacGuffin. As the novel progresses, Spade begins to uncover sinister secrets and the desperate lengths these people will go to have the falcon for their own.
Most noteworthy is Hammett’s signature approach to writing. His words have a Hemingwayesque bluntness and are written with concision. The Maltese Falcon is hardly subtle, but possesses a sense of wit and charm that makes it memorable. But most admirable is Hammett’s ability to write a quasi-realistic mystery novel, where the reader is capable of suspending their disbelief to follow the plot. In Hammett’s earlier novels, Red Harvest and The Dain Curse, Hammett would pile the pages with action and story, to the point where it became impossible to accept so much was occurring in such little time. But The Maltese Falcon is far more down to earth, calm, and entertaining.
Hammett’s protagonist is stolid and clever; he’s unflinching and always has a clever response up his sleeve. Though the character of a headstrong, jocular, and ingenious detective has become somewhat of a cliche after the likes of Hammett and Raymond Chandler, that only goes to credit Hammett’s gift for writing exciting and memorable characters. After all, everything that is now cliched was once innovative and refreshing. Yet in Hammett’s novels, the main character is always the same person. It’s the supporting personalities that give the narrative its colour. The Maltese Falcon has no shortage of engrossing secondary characters, nor does it have a shortage of descriptions for them. Spade is described as looking “rather pleasantly, like a blond Satan.” When we’re introduced to the Fat Man, as he approaches “his bulbs rose and shook and fell separately with each step, in the manner of clustered soap-bubbles not yet released from the pipe through which they had been blown.” This vivid detailing is consistently found within the pages of The Maltese Falcon, as Hammett uses imagery to give us an idea of the smoky and slimy underworld he’s so enamored with.
Thematically, the novel does exist in fairly shallow territory. At least in the sense that there are no grand revelations about life and existence or other “big ideas”. It’s a story with a primary goal to entertain the readers, but it also provides some of Hammett’s insights on the world. The Maltese Falcon is filled with death (interesting, however, is the fact that all of the violence occurs off the page). Countless lives are lost over the Falcon, an ancient and valuable decorative object. People are fuelled by their greed past the point of common sense. Lives are sacrificed over such a seemingly trivial object. Hammett’s goal seems to be in pointing out the tremendous lengths human avarice will put people through.
But do not mistake The Maltese Falcon for pulp fiction. There’s nothing cheap about it. This is as sharp as American 20th century detective novels get. Excitement bubbles less within the story but more within the characters who populate it. Hammett’s quick-witted writing is what makes The Maltese Falcon more than merely a great mystery novel, but a downright great novel in relation to any genre.