The Maltese Falcon

March 15, 2009

[copied from my old Myspace blog]

The book for this year’s NEA Big Read is The Maltese Falcon, written by Dashiell Hammett in the 1920s.  The local Augusta County Library in Fishersville, VA, has folks giving daily readings from the book, and I’ll be reading/performing chapter 16 on March 23 at noon.

So guess it’s about time I read the book, huh?

I finished it yesterday while lying on the couch, trying not to die from a head cold.  And I must say that, while it was entertaining, I found it challenging on several levels, and not necessarily in a good way.  There was, of course, the immense cultural baggage that accompanies a seminal book like this–all the decades of film and TV adaptations, the way it really established hard-boiled noir mystery fiction, as far as I know–so it was impossible to read the book and not think I was watching a black-and-white movie from the ’40s starring Humphrey Bogart.  After awhile, I stopped trying.  But that wasn’t Dashiell Hammett’s fault.

What was Dashiell Hammett’s “fault,” if any fault is to be assigned, is that he constructed a thoroughly dislikable character in Samuel Spade.  Up to the very last page, I found nothing redeeming about him.  Spade’s actions and words, quite consistently, showed that he valued one thing and one thing only: money.  He wasn’t motivated by respect for the law, nor love, nor loyalty.  At the end, he did say something about feeling obligated to investigate the murder of his partner, whom he didn’t like, just because he’d been his partner, but if that was the case, then it didn’t really come out in the story until that point.

I guess what I’m getting at is that one of the gold standards in judging the power of any story is whether the characters have been changed by the story.  It’s a simple matter of character arc: was Samuel Spade a different person at the end than he was at the beginning?  Because let’s face it: if a character isn’t changed by the story, then this must not have been a particularly significant episode of the character’s life, so we as the readers have no particular reason for reading the story.  And on that criterion, I have to say about Samuel Spade that I’m not sure if he changed, and probably not.  In the last chapter, Brigid O’Shaughnessy challenges Spade with a question: Do you love me?  “Maybe I do,” he answers.  “What of it?”  He goes on to say that he won’t “play the sap for you” and makes it clear that he’s perfectly willing to sell her out to the cops because he doesn’t want to go down for her crimes.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is about all the character arc that I can detect.  Spade might love her, he might not, but that doesn’t change who he is.  He’s looking out for number one.  Oh, and that other woman whom he’s been sleeping with, the wife of his dead partner?  For God’s sake, Effie, keep her out of my office.  Not now.

All that being said, perhaps The Maltese Falcon was a success for the very reasons I’ve cited above.  It certainly got me thinking.  It certainly elicited an emotional reaction in me, and, to the author’s credit, the emotional reaction had more to do with the story and characters than it did with how he writes.  (It’s not often that we encounter a novel written entirely in the third-person objective viewpoint, in which we never get inside of character’s thoughts and have to figure it all out for ourselves, kind of like watching a movie or a play.)  And in the final judgment, that’s really the most important thing about a book: did it reach the reader in some way?  Did it affect the reader on some level?  Did it entertain him, piss him off, or change the reader in any way?

In answer to that, the best I can say is to parrot Spade.  Maybe it did.