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Thursday, 10 January 2013

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett


So, 2013 is upon us and my Literary Exploration Challenge has started in earnest...I'll be honest and say that I am feeling a teeny bit apprehensive, have I bitten off more than I can chew? To kick things off I picked a classic detective novel off the TBR that I have been meaning to get around to for ages, Dashiell Hammett's famous work, The Maltese Falcon. After scratching my head for a short time trying to decide whether this would satisfy the Noir or Hard-Boiled category, I consulted Michael's handy guide to pulp fiction (a must-read for any beginners interested in dabbling in this genre) over at the Literary Exploration blog and have decided to put a tick on my challenge list next to...

Hard-boiled


Maltese Falcon

When the stunning redhead Miss Wonderly walks into Sam Spade's detective agency to request his help, offering to pay him handsomely for the job, he thinks it's going to be a good day. But a few short hours later we find his partner shot dead and the police sniffing at Spade's door asking questions about a second man's murder. He is plunged headlong into a search for an artefact so precious that there are a cast of colourful characters out there who would kill to take its possession.

Despite the grim setting of prohibition-era San Francisco, there is a strange kind of grubby glamour that makes this book quite captivating. The dialogue is clipped and sharp in contrast to Hammett's wonderfully vivid descriptive passages:

"The fat man was flabbily fat with bulbous pink cheeks and lips and chins and neck, with a great soft egg of a belly that was all his torso, and pendant cones for arms and legs. As he advanced to meet Spade all 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. His eyes, made small by fat puffs around, were dark and sleek."

For me, though, Sam Spade himself is what makes this book so compelling. It's rare that I encounter so enigmatic a lead character. Spade is one tough cookie and doesn't think twice about double-crossing people or manipulating situations to get his own way. He is sometimes cruel, he is disrespectful to women, but despite all this he remains very much the hero of the story and you can't help admiring his cunning ways. Hammett has quite cleverly avoided sharing any of his internal dialogue or thoughts at all, which shrouds him in intrigue and leaves the reader guessing at what exactly is on his mind.

I enjoyed my introduction to hard-boiled detective fiction very much, and would like to watch the classic film based on this book soon. It will be interesting to see if I notice any difference between hard-boiled and noir when  I get to that point in my challenge, and whether I enjoy noir as much. I would love to hear any recommendations you have of good hard-boiled novels to try in the future!

16 comments:

  1. How funny, this was my pick for the Hard-Boiled selection for this challenge too! Glad to hear you liked it! Great review. :)

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    1. Have you read it yet? It's a good one - though I think it will be lots of people's pick for this category because when you have to pick one hard-boiled book and one noir book, what else do you choose if you're a beginner? I reckon I won't be the only person reading one Dashiell Hammett and one Raymond Chandler!

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  2. Good luck with your literary challenge. It is sort of similar to my genre variety reading challenge. I don't read noir very much, but Maltese Falcon is one I'd consider if I decided to try the genre out. :)

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    1. It is really similar to that genre variety one. Anything that encourages us to broaden our horizons can only be a good thing in my book! But you are doing so many challenges, I don't know how you manage it! I haven't read noir before but I reckon this is a good place to start for a beginner.

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  3. I'm also participating in the challenge (the insane level plus two more genres that I found missing there: family sagas and landscape novels), but I have to confess I don't know all the genres, so I'm very pleased for this recommendation :)
    Good luck with the challenge!!

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    1. It's definitely a good choice and I think it would satisfy either the noir or the hard-boiled category. What is a landscape novel? This is a genre that's new to me!

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    2. Oh, landscape means a story about a character in the nineteenth or twentieth century who has to travel and live in a very far away country.
      This genre it's becoming very popular in Spain; perhaps you have heard about the novels by Sarah Lark (German).
      We have a lot of translations of these kind of books by German authors; I'm just reading another one now.

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  4. “Hard-boiled” and “Noir” often rub shoulders with each other. In fact, they even swap clothes now and then. Noir was first used by French movie critics in the mid-1950s to refer to a cluster of American black-and-white films—including “The Maltese Falcon”—made in the 1940s and ‘50s that exhibited common stylistic and dramatic traits (the critics apparently borrowed the word Noir from a series of French crime novels). Many of those Films Noir started out as American crime fiction. Noir is still used today as a label for certain contemporary fiction & films. … Not sure where “hard-boiled” made its first appearance, but it was no doubt in reference to the characters, often “private eyes,” who appeared in seminal American pulp fiction of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. Certainly Hammett and Chandler were among the most noted authors of hard-boiled fiction. Hammett’s Continental Op as well as Sam Spade are iconic hard-boiled PIs. … But if I were you, I’d worry about the labels only up to a point. Far better just to enjoy the stuff. Read James M. Cain’s “The Postman Only Rings Twice,” one of the tightest, most focused, most hard-boiled short novels you’ll ever encounter (very Noir too), and there’s not a PI in sight. Or Cain’s “Double Indemnity” (made into one of the best ever Films Noir in 1947). Read the first 1,000 words of Hammett’s “Red Harvest,” featuring the Continental Op as narrator, for a real good sense of how well Hammett mastered the form. After you do, I just dare you to put it down.

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    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to explain all this! I had no idea that the term Noir was first used in cinema - we are so used to books coming first and the movie world building on them. I have added your recommendations to my wishlist, looks like I'll have a few to choose from when it comes to picking a Noir book for my reading challenge.

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  5. I've never been able to get into the movie, but I like the idea of reading the novel instead. You've definitely given me food for thought as to the difference between Noir and Hard-boiled too!

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    1. I've never seen the movie but it's always worth giving the novel a go even if you haven't enjoyed the film, isn't it - some cinematic adaptations are so far removed from the original book it's unbelievable!

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  6. Noir isn't my favourite type of crime fiction but I read and enjoyed this years ago. For a female classic writer you might want to try 'Beast in View' by Margaret Millar which is an excellent dark psychological thriller set in the 1950s.

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    1. Oooh, I've just looked at a synopsis of this and it looks very interesting. I think it would be fascinating to read some Noir with a female protagonist - there's something overwhelmingly masculine about The Maltese Falcon and I'm intrigued by how this would compare. Thanks for the recommendation!

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  7. I just read The Thin Man by the same author. I hope to get to the Maltese Falcon sometime this year also, because I want to compare them. I think The Thin Man is lighter, more humor, although it is by no means a light easy read. The movies for both books are wonderful.

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  8. Great review, I'm glad you discovered the joys of reading Hard-Boiled novels and The Maltese Falcon is a great place to start. I hope you look into some of the other great hard-boiled detectives, like Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe and reven Hammett's Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man).

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    1. Yes I really enjoyed it - I've had a good look through the overview posts on your blog and they've provided me with plenty of inspiration to go from here!

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