New to Noir: The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Noir, also known as hardboiled, is the gritty, world-weary subcategory of crime fiction, recognizable by its unsentimental protagonist, the rogue private detective; an early and gruesome murder; and a pretty girl who is most likely not telling the truth. The dialogue is often hyperbolic and the characters cartoonish, but that’s what makes the genre so good–and why so many of its forebears are still celebrated and imitated today.
Dashiell Hammett is one such writer. Even those who don’t read detective fiction know his name and still more know of his influential work, The Maltese Falcon.
The Maltese Falcon, to summarize, is the multi-layered detective story that begins with a woman, Miss Wonderly from New York, visiting Private Detective Samuel Spade’s office in San Francisco. She’s come to find her sister who has allegedly run away with a man she assumes to be dangerous and hires Spade to find him.
Spade assigns the case to his naive partner, Miles Archer, only to receive a phone call about his murder a few hours later: “Hello. … Yes, speaking. … Dead? … Yes … Fifteen minutes. Thanks” is all we hear.
Although set in California readers see very little sun. The mood is dark, gloomy, almost claustrophobic.
Cold steamy air blew in through two open windows, bringing with it half a dozen times a minute the Alcatraz foghorn’s dull moaning. A tinny alarm-clock, insecurely mounted on a corner of Duke’s Celebrated Criminal Cases of America–face down on the table–held its hands at five minutes past two.
It’s this vivid imagery that stands out while reading Hammett. In fact, the more I read noir, the more I realize there is a manner in which people and events are described that is unique to the genre.
Hammett’s Sam Spade is an archetype, the ideal noir detective: he’s not swayed by emotion or a woman’s looks; he operates outside of the law, but only to bring about truth and justice; and most important, possibly the crux of his appeal, is that if he’s not already one step ahead of his enemies, he eventually gets there.
Hammett opens with this image of Spade:
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.
Another core character, as alluded to above, is the femme fatale, French for “deadly woman.” In contemporary noir, I’ve found the descriptions of these women tailored to fit today’s more enlightened view of the sexes but in Hammett’s time there were no such conventions. Here is the description of Miss Wonderly, the first glimpse of what she looks like:
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.
It’s not just the lengthy paragraphs of description that grab you, there are many one-liners as well: “Her boyish face was pale under its sunburn” and “His eyes burned yellowly” for example. Then there are the snappy retorts begging to be committed to memory: “I distrust a man that says when. If he’s got to be careful not to drink too much it’s because he’s not to be trusted when he does.” Or, the less useful but equally compelling, “I hope to Christ they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck.”
Hammett wrote detective fiction with an advantage. He had real life experience. Before picking up the pen he’d spent years as a detective for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, a private organization that also employed security guards and military contractors. Hammett knew how investigations worked, what stakeouts were like, and how the different players might react. This realism adds to the story’s brutishness.
Fellow classic noir author Raymond Chandler once credited Hammett with making “the detective story fun to write, not an exhausting concatenation of insignificant clues.” The same can be said for the reading experience he inspires. However, The Maltese Falcon is more than a fast-paced, gritty crime novel, it’s also a lesson in seeing.
Buy The Maltese Falcon at your local bookstore