The Maltese Falcon is one of those books that I approached with a mild hesitation because the last time I read a proper crime fiction, I nailed it as the worst book of that year. That’s two years ago, and I’m not obviously over it. Private Detective Sam Spade is hired by a beautiful woman to track down her sister. That’s the first chapter, and the second chapter kicks in with a murder. You’d think that a murderous death and a beautiful woman’s plea for help are just coincidences, but of course they are not.
Before anyone can make any connection, a bunch of suspects are thrown around because it isn’t palatable if there aren’t red herrings served on your plate. But what are these people killing each other for? Yup, point your finger at the Maltese falcon, the prized object in this novel, which I’m not going to talk about. But seeing that some editions of this novel have an image of a perching black falcon in the cover art, it’s safe to say that this statue is worth a lot of money.
I could have chosen another word aside from money but it’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think of greed. Either that or power, but we’re not talking of any mystical or paranormal things here in case one gets that idea. Greed in this novel sets off a lethal pursuit in roads strewn with schemes and lies and deceit, but whether or not the efforts of this chase have a point, monetary or otherwise, is up for debate.
Also debatable is Sam Spade’s code of ethics. I haven’t read a lot of detective novels so my fickle mind easily imagines that detectives are on the side of the law. But could one imagine a character described like the following on the good team?
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.
At the end of the novel, one would wonder why he did what he did. The surface makes it appear that Sam Spade is acting out of professionalism. He’s a law-abiding detective after all, but if you peel off that veneer, there are layers of other motives that are surely less impressive. There’s moral ambiguity there. It’s not easy to get the compass working because the poles of his rightness and wrongness are undetectable. Which is fine because had he been the perfect detective with honorable principles, valiant actions, and all that, there would have been just another trashy novel.
If one considers when this novel was first published (1930), one has to applaud its boldness and its wit for outdoing the censors (check out the history of the word ‘gunsel’ and note how it’s used in the novel). You may hate this book for its perceived misogyny or homophobia, but well, it’s a product of its times. And I had a rad time reading it while listening to the audiobook, its speed set to a frantic 1.5x. Don’t judge me.
[Read in June 2015.]
[3 out of 5 stars.]
[217 pages. Trade paperback.]
[Audiobook narrated by William Dufris.]