‘You have always, I must say, a smooth explanation ready.’

The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett

What is there to say about this one? This is as classic as classic gets, and I say that as someone who’s reviewed Don Quixote here. This is one of the ur-texts of hardboiled fiction, source for one of the greatest film noir movies of all time. It’s also bloody good.


I’ve read The Maltese Falcon before, so while it wasn’t on my #TBR20 list I thought I could allow a read of it while I was in San Francisco last month. How can you not read Dashiell Hammett when in San Francisco? It’s half the reason I wanted to go there in the first place.

Here’s how the book opens:

Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down – from high flat temples – in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

Right away Hammett has put Sam Spade front and centre, while at the same time making him slightly questionable. He sounds lupine; he’s “pleasantly like a blond satan” which makes him sound charming but not particularly reassuring.

Moments later Sam’s secretary is showing in a woman named Wonderley, “a knockout”, a femme as fatale as any that ever lived on the page:

She was tall and pliantly slender, without angularity anywhere. Her body was erect and high-breasted, her legs long, her hands and feet narrow. She wore two shades of blue that had been selected because of her eyes. The hair curling from under her blue hat was darkly red, her full lips more brightly red. White teeth glistened in the crescent her timid smile made.

What follows is a dizzying tale of murder, betrayal, and above all greed. Miss Wonderley tells Sam that her sister has fallen into bad company with a man named Floyd Thursby. Now the sister has disappeared, and Miss Wonderley fears Thursby might harm her, even kill her. She wants Thursby watched and her sister brought safely home.

By the start of chapter two Sam’s partner, Miles Archer, has been murdered and the case has become personal. Sam didn’t like Miles any and he was sleeping with Miles’ wife, but even so a man can’t let someone shoot his partner and do nothing about it, particularly when the police start poking around looking for someone to blame. Whatever’s going on, it’s much more than a runaway sister.

‘That – that story I told you yesterday was all – a story,’ she stammered, and looked up at him now with miserable frightened eyes. ‘Oh, that,’ Spade said lightly. ‘We didn’t exactly believe your story.’ ‘Then—?’ Perplexity was added to the misery and fright in her eyes. ‘We believed your two hundred dollars.’ ‘You mean—?’ She seemed to not know what he meant. ‘I mean that you paid us more than if you’d been telling the truth,’ he explained blandly, ‘and enough more to make it all right.’

The Maltese Falcon has some of the finest characters in any crime novel I’ve read. Miss Wonderley is really Brigid O’Shaugnessy, and by her own account in the past she’s been “bad – worse than you could know – but I’m not all bad”. She’s in serious trouble, the worst kind, and she’s dependent on Sam Spade to help her out of it but what exactly it is is far from clear. For a damsel in distress she’s surprisingly hard to get a straight answer from, but then being a knockout is all the explanation she’s ever needed in life.

Sam gets visited in his office by Joel Cairo, a small-boned Levantine dressed in rich clothes and armed with heavily scented handkerchiefs and a small-calibre pistol. Joel’s looking for an ornament, “the black figure of a bird”, and he’s not the only one because the fat man is out there too and he has a vicious street thug bearing twin .45s watching Sam wherever he goes.

The fat man, actually named Gutman, is another memorable character. He’s loquacious, jocular, well mannered and well groomed. He’s appetite in a bulging suit, polite but determined. The thug, a gunsel named Wilmer, is a bitter little killer full of anger and resentment at the world. The two of them make a dangerous combination.

I should at this point make a small aside and note that this is not a particularly gay-friendly novel. Cairo is an effeminate gay and portrayed as ugly and unwholesome in part because of that. Wilmer is a gunsel, a term that today because of this book and the film means a gun-thug but that originally meant a catamite – Hammett used the term so that he could get the gay subtext into the book without being too explicit and it worked so well that when I first read it and saw the film I had no idea of the implications.

Above all of them though there’s the character that’s by far the greatest in the book – Sam Spade himself. Spade changes his mood and his manner to the occasion: dumb when he wants to be underestimated; angry when he wants to intimidate; charming when he wants to persuade; sharp-tongued when he wants to put someone back in their place. He’s quick-witted and poker-faced, and the real crime is that Hammett never wrote another novel featuring him. He is, quite simply, one of the greatest fictional detectives ever written.

The chances are almost everyone reading this knows the plot, the secret of the “black bird” and what’s really going on with O’Shaugnessy, Cairo and Gutman. It’s possible though that some of you may not, and just in case of that I won’t say anything more about what happens. I will say though that while Chandler remains my first and greatest hardboiled love, Hammett knew how to write a plot and the plot here is one worthy of the characters.

This is probably as close to a love-letter as I’ll write in a review, until at least I reread The Big Sleep at which point I’ll likely gush to a level that makes this look restrained. Still, it’s The Maltese Falcon, and to quote Spade from the film in a line he never says in the book, it’s “the stuff that dreams are made of”.

I’ll finish up with a quick comment on the film, which I rewatched while out in San Francisco. It’s amazingly close to the book, with large chunks of dialogue taken straight from one to the other. It’s as well directed as you’d hope from John Huston at the top of his game, but above all it is incredibly well cast.

Bogart of course makes a definitive Sam Spade. He looks nothing like the book’s description of the character, but that simply doesn’t matter as he completely inhabits the part and in doing so pretty much defines the iconography of the cinematic private detective. Mary Astor matches him in a career-defining role as Brigid O’Shaugnessy – a woman who is varyingly vulnerable, bold, affectionate, manipulative, seductive, dangerous, terrified and more.

Sydney Greenstreet seems to have stepped out of the book as Gutman; Peter Lorre is a marvellously questionable Cairo (though I’ve never seen Lorre disappoint); and perhaps most impressive of all is character actor Elisha Cook, Jr who captures Wilmer in all his petty viciousness so well that at times I almost sympathised with him. The supporting actors are equally well chosen, the whole film crackles with talent and is just an exceptional joy to watch.


Filed under Crime, Hammett, Dashiell, Hardboiled

16 responses to “‘You have always, I must say, a smooth explanation ready.’

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I love Hammett’s writing, and I confess that I’m inordinately fond of the Continental Op, so I don’t actually mind Sam Spade being restricted to this story!

  2. Satan met a lady is one of the earlier film versions. Not nearly as good as the Bogart version which I recently rewatched.

  3. A classic indeed. You didn’t happen to see the film at the Castro Theater when you were in SF, did you? It was playing there about the time you were on your trip. I almost went. I can’t believe I still have never been to John’s Grill, which features in the novel and is still going strong. Heck, maybe I’ll remedy that on the way home tonight…

  4. This is a classic I want to read and a film I want to watch after I’ve read the book.

    Thanks for the enlightening comment on “gunsel”, I would have missed that.

  5. Great stuff, Max. I read this novel many years ago, and it’s a delight to relive here. The quotes are terrific, especially the description of Wonderley – it’s rather cinematic in its own right.

    I love the film, too. Well, I’m slightly in love with Bogart, what with this one, In a Lonely Place, The Big Sleep and Casablanca.

    I’ve been having fun rereading some of Raymond Chandler’s novels in recent years. The Big Sleep remains my favourite, but The Long Good-bye gave Sleep a run for its money when I revisited it a few months ago.

  6. Kaggsy, I certainly wouldn’t want less Continental Op, just more Sam Spade (and more Nick and Nora, must reread the wonderful The Thin Man).

    Guy, it would I think be hard to match the Bogart, it really is absolutely essential film noir.

    Scott, no, I wish I had. And I didn’t go to John’s Grill. Beautiful architecture around town though.

    Emma, I think that’s the right order. I missed the gunsel thing too originally, someone explained it to me. Both book and film are great.

    Jacqui, I have your Chandler reviews bookmarked. I think he’s the better prose stylist, but Hammett is better on plot, and he certainly can still do character and there’s some great prose here (glad you liked the quotes).

    All four of those are seriously solid films. What about The Roaring Twenties? Bogart as one of the earliest film depictions of a sociopath I can think of.

  7. You say Huston is at the top if his game (which I completely agree with) but this was (remarkably) his first film as a director. Greenstreet as Gutman gives one of my all-time favourite performances. Bogart and Astor are superb as well, but there’s something about that jovial, dangerous fat man that really tickles me.

  8. I didn’t know that Ian, and it makes it all the more remarkable as an achievement. Absolutely agree on Greenstreet.

  9. Neil Harvey

    I can’t agree with you on Chandler being a better prose stylist. Hammett’s style is pared down, Chandler’s is lush. Hammett uses one word where Chandler would use five and try and include a simile. It is easy to get lost in the prose of Chandler, that doesn’t happen in Hammett. Mind you, Hammett is positively loquacious in comparison to James M. Cain!

  10. I love Chandler’s prose. Hammett is definitely pared down, but that isn’t the only metric. Chandler writes sentences as good I think as anyone ever has. Hammett is good, but for me not at that level, though he’s still damned good and is better at plot.

    What do you think about Ross MacDonald? There’s some reviews here if you’re curious.

    Also, thanks for the disagreement! I love people disagreeing, it doesn’t happen enough.

  11. Neil Harvey

    Love Ross MacDonald but haven’t read him for years and years. I always thought that he spoilt his plots by pulling some strange rabbit out of the hat. By which I mean that Lew Archer would get so far and then find out that something happened umpteen years ago that has an impact on the plot. It got to the point where I would be wondering when the revelation about what happened in the past was going to impinge on the present. Nevertheless, he was a real page turner.

  12. I’ve not read enough of him for that to be an issue yet. Sounds like I should space them out so I don’t notice it too much.

  13. Have read 10 Macdonalds now, and I can kind of see what Neil means. I think in general the trend is that (in later books) the crimes are due to people not being who they seem or claim to be; or because the protagonists are acting under forces they themselves or Archer, or both, are unaware of (often some historical situation or inherited pressure). The process of uncovering the secret or the deception is really the search for the true identity or motivation. This is often revealed at a moment of crisis that (I suppose) mimics the breakthroughs of psychiatry. It’s more personal than procedural, and it can feel like some deus ex machina is being introduced. You can’t really put the clues together to arrive at a logical outcome – that’s Macdonald’s point. Often the “criminals” themselves are unaware of what they’re doing, or why. Not always of course – there are still predators and hoods out there in the LA sunshine (these are crime novels after all)

    I’ve warmed up to the approach and it’s part of the reason my appetite for more Macdonald and Archer is undimmed.

  14. Neil Harvey

    That is a far better description of how Macdonald works than my rabbit out of the hat comment. I last read Macdonald in the 80s, so my memories are a little blurred!

  15. Thanks – it’s on my mind Neil, and to be fair I am currently reading these (and greatly enjoying them) as opposed to remembering them 10 years later. I’d seen reference to how Macdonald “puts his fascination with psychiatry” into the books, but it hadn’t really been evident. So I’ve been watching for it and trying to discern his method.

  16. Pingback: Reflections on a reading year | Pechorin's Journal

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