Thursday, 3 February 2011

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

The ultimate hard-boiled detective novel, The Maltese Falcon and its subsequent screen versions (most famously with Humphry Bogart) brought the tough, morally ambiguous, chain smoking and hard-drinking PI into the public consciousness.

Sam Spade is a small time private investigator in San Fancisco who is asked by the beautiful Brigid O’Shaughnessy to track down her errant sister. He sends his partner Miles out on the job, but that night the other man is shot dead and it quickly transpires that their commission wasn’t what it seemed. Called out by the police when they find Miles’s body, it’s well into the small hours when he gets back to his apartment:

Spade’s tinny alarm-lock said three-forty when he turned on the light in the suspended bowl again. He dropped his hat and overcoat on the bed and went into his kitchen, returning to the bedroom with a wine-glass and a tall bottle of Bacardi. He poured a drink and drank it standing. He put bottle and glass on the table, sat on the side of the bed facing them, and rolled a cigarette. He had drunk his third glass of Bacardi and was lighting his fifth cigarette when the street-door-bell rang. The hands of the alarm clock registered four-thirty.

The visitors are the police again, this time trying to insinuate that Spade has something to do with Miles’s murder. The next day, he’s visited by a sinister Levantine by the name of Joel Cairo who asks him if he knows the whereabouts of a black metal figurine in the form of a falcon, then pulls a gun on him... A drink is required after this sort of intrusion:

For half an hour after Joel Cairo had gone Spade sat alone, still and frowning, at his desk. The he said aloud in tone of one dismissing a problem, “Well, they’re paying me for it,” and took a bottle of Manhattan cocktail and a paper drinking-cup from the desk-drawer. He filled the cup two-thirds full, drank, returned the bottle to the drawer, tossed the cup into the wastebasket, put on his hat and overcoat, turned off the lights, and went down to the night-lit street.

Spade finally gets to see the man behind the mystery, the obese Mr. Gutman who tells him the story of the Maltese Falcon, a fabulously valuable jeweled statuette that has been painted black to hide its value. Not before pouring him a Johnny Walker and soda, of course:

Spade sat in the green chair. The fat man began to fill two glasses from bottle and siphon. The boy had disappeared. Doors set in three of the room’s walls were shut. The fourth wall, behind Spade, was pierced by two windows looking out over Geary Street. “We start well, sir,” the fat man purred, turning with a proffered glass in his hand. “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.”

Sage advice. That said, none of the people Spade has met are to be trusted at all, drink or no drink. What follows is a masterpiece of suspense and two-fisted action and one of the best crime novels ever written.

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