The Maltese Falcon
Novel, 1930
approx. 84,000 words,
240 pages @350 wds/pg

First line:

Samuel Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth.

Great lines:

"If they hang you I'll always remember you."

About the author:

Dashiell Hammett may be better known today as a character himself than as a creator of fictional private detective characters. He keeps popping up in books and movies as the.... more

Low brow, high morality

Everyone who loves classic film noir knows the complicated storyline from the 1941 flick starring Humphrey Bogart. The Maltese Falcon involves a lot of intrigue among shady, eccentric characters to find a black bird made of gold and jewels. And a femme fatale who bewitches our hero, the private investigator Sam Spade.

But for Spade the most important task is to discover the murderer of his partner Miles Archer, who was bumped off near the beginning of the case, and to bring the killer to justice.

The novel is also Dashiell Hammett at his best. Every scene is alive, accomplished with a minimum of description, with only action and plain, sharp dialogue. Every character is realized without much—or any—background exposition. Hammett has the ability to have his characters take actions that surprise the reader, yet immediately seem natural, as if they would have been predictable if only we'd understood them well enough.

The wrap-up chapter especially presents Spade's (Hammett's) code of personal honour and justice within the cynical milieu typical of hardboiled detective fiction, a genre which Hammett himself practically invented. With this novel, Hammett established the figure of the jaded P.I. firmly in the popular imagination and set the standard that generations of crime writers have ever since tried to reach or surpass.

But The Maltese Falcon is interesting also for the growth of Hammett's writing from being about a tough guy to being about a tough guy with a higher moral sense.

And, all that aside, it's just a great, exciting read.

— Eric

missing graphic
The Maltese Falcon
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Related pages:

Dashiell Hammett
author

The Maltese Falcon
movies

The Thin Man
novel