Book Review: THE MALTESE FALCON, by Dashiell Hammett

I know, I know, I go on about how I don't like murder-mystery novels, but then I post two reviews of murder-mystery novels pretty much back to back. I'm silly, yes, but allow me to clarify: I don't generally like mysteries, I stand by that, but I do like Dashiell Hammett. I mean, these aren't drugstore paperbacks with flimsy plots featuring a homicidal killer on the loose, creeping closer and closer to the main character, who is always "next in line"--these are old-school detective novels, with the manliest of manly men, Samuel Spade, Private Eye, intimidating his way through the police department, whole passels of bad guys, and, oh yes, the ladies.

Let's just get it out there, and have it done: THE MALTESE FALCON is 200+ pages of sheer over-the-top masculinity, and most of the characters who aren't white, male, and Sam Spade come off looking pretty bad. But Hammett's got some skill with the pen that makes this all somehow part of the plot, part of the era, and FALCON is the sort of book that makes me just relax and ride along, watching the show as tough guys swagger around in pleated pants and shoulder holsters, telling each other to "go for your heater," or calling the women things like "angel" and "sweetheart" and, my favorite, "sister".

And while these are fun aspects of the crime novel, the very, very best thing about anything Hammett writes is his remarkable ability to describe a character. Some of his character descriptions are so perfect that I've photocopied them, and I keep them tucked in my notebook for moments when all I can summon, by way of a physical description, are terrible phrases like "jet black hair" and "twinkling blue eyes." As an example of Hammett's prowess, I give you the first paragraph of the book:
Samuel Spade's jaw was long and boney, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-gray 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 foreheard. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.
The other thing I love about Hammett (and this is obviously a review written by an English major) is his dialogue. Short, sweet, and curiously," said she, "interrupted." I could go on forever, but I won't. I'll say, I don't dig the sort of mysteries that strive to keep you on the edge of your seat, at the expense of the writing, the character developement, and a creative plot, but I'll take a mystery this well-written anytime. The writing is wonderfully paced and delicious; the characters are not terribly likeable (with the possible exception of Effie Perine), but they are well-rounded, believable and, yes, flawlessly described; the plot is intricate, but not muddled. And no matter how much color Dashiell Hammett throws in, I still picture the whole thing in black-and-white.


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