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Reading Material: March 2008

The Maltese FalconThe Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

Cairo, speaking with difficulty because of the fingers on his throat, said: “This is the second time you’ve put hands on me.” His eyes, though the throttling pressure on his throat made them bulge, were cold and menacing. “Yes,” Spade growled. “And when you’re slapped you’ll take it and like it.” He released Cairo’s wrist and with a thick open hand struck the side of his face three times, savagely. Cairo tried to spit in Spade’s face, but the dryness of the Levantine’s mouth made it only an angry gesture. Spade slapped the mouth, cutting the lower lip.

The Maltese Falcon is widely considered not just a high-water mark in the history of mysteries and crime fiction, but a first-of-its-kind example of the hard-boiled detective novel. Hammett certainly has the stuff for literary fiction — the language is blunt but reflective of fairly complex psychology, the story dense and detailed. The impact of the story is softened somewhat by a necessary familiarity with the circumstances — film buffs already know the story behind Miss Brigid O’Shaughnessy (née Wonderly), the big Mr. Gutman and the effeminate Mr. Cairo. It’s hard to get Humphrey Bogart’s iconic portrayal of detective Sam Spade out of mind, but the character on the page is a somewhat rougher, more tightly wound tough guy than Bogie’s generally relaxed portrayal suggests. (“He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan,” Hammett explains in the opening paragraph.) The book’s most shocking passage, for me, involves Spade’s sadistic beatdown of the homosexual Mr. Cairo, quoted above — I can guess how that played to readers in 1930, but fortunately, there’s nuance to the gay-baiting. Spade is badly frustrated by his woman problems — he suffers from the fallout from an affair with his partner’s wife, and maybe already from the creeping notion that chahe’ll eventually have to send Brigid up the river — and asserts himself sexually in part by lashing out at the token queer. (Despite treatment that borders on outright mockery, Mr. Cairo is eventually developed as an honorable and likable character.) That twisted idea of what it means to be a man contributes to an intricate, surprising, and well-crafted novel with a quiet but harrowing emotional climax.

After the jump: Chandler, Bulgakov, and (Laurie) King

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