The Maltese Falcon

SEPT / OCT 2016: BY SHANNON H.

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Detective stories are the things that makes us turn each and every page, scratch our heads, and, yes, even get us to think. Sometimes, it’s the obvious; sometimes it’s not who you expect. Likeable characters become villains and so-called villains turn out to be good guys. Whether it’s Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Victorian detective drama, we always know to expect the unexpected. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett embodies the spirit of a good detective mystery that leaves the reader on the edge, anticipating the next big surprise along with a stunning 1941 film adaptation that defines the genre of film noir.

It is San Francisco in 1929. Private detective Sam Spade and his partner, Miles Archer, meet with a distraught young woman named Miss Wonderley. Apparently, her younger teenage sister, Corinne, has run off with a much older British man by the name of Floyd Thursby. She needs Corinne back home. She gives them the money for Archer to follow the man in question. Unfortunately, the “meeting” ends in disaster. Archer is shot dead and Thursby is murdered not much later. Upon hearing the news of his partner’s death, Spade shows no emotion or any kind of mourning whatsoever. Detectives soon show up at his apartment, asking about the murder of Archer and Thursby and getting frustrated by his lack of information about the latter, believing him to be a suspect as Spade was having an affair with Archer’s wife Iva (behind his partner’s back). Even Iva and Archer’s brother Phil suspect Spade.

Sam Spade finds out Miss Wonderley had lied about her situation (she had no sister) and is actually Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Miss O’Shaughnessy and a host of other characters, including an effeminate Greek man, Joel Cairo, a fat man by the name of Caspar Gutman and his trigger happy bodyguard Wilmer Cook have been after the Maltese Falcon, a valuable statuette from Europe previously owned by royalty. It bounced around from owner to owner from Europe to Asia. Because of her involvement with some dangerous people, Miss O’Shaughnessy begs for Spade’s protection. The more Spade finds himself involved in the case of the Maltese Falcon and the murders of Archer and Thursby, the more danger he finds himself in, and he soon realizes some people aren’t to be trusted.

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Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon is a classic detective story. Since Hammett himself worked as a detective, the story feels gritty and real. It’s very easy to imagine a smoke-filled detective office (one can practically smell the smoke just from reading the book) with Sam Spade sitting across from someone. It’s unconventional in the way it addresses murder suspects. Spade is never seen going down a line of suspected murders and picking one out of the bunch. Rather, he is drawn into a group of dangerous people who may or may not have killed someone. What is fascinating about Spade is he a man devoid of emotion and sentimentality with a unique ethos; when his partner is murdered, he sheds no tears and goes on about his life as if nothing happened. He only watches out for himself and does not care too much about morality as he sees no harm in sleeping with his associate’s wife. Deep down inside, though, he does have a heart and cares for those he trusts, one being his secretary, Effie. In a way, she’s sort of his “right hand man,” not just fielding phone calls but assisting with errands and even offering Miss O’Shaughnessy to stay at her place for awhile. The Maltese Falcon is that rare detective novel that figuratively takes the reader through the seedy underbelly of crime and the people involved in it.

The 1941 film version, directed by John Huston in his directorial debut, is almost word-for-word. Humphrey Bogart plays the jaded private detective, Samuel Spade, alongside Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the seductive woman who hires Spade. It is very hard to find fault with the movie as it is quite true to the original source material save for a few minor details. Peter Lorre steals the show as the wimpy and despicable Joel Cairo. It’s easy to compare Bogart’s Spade to his later role as Rick Blaine in Casablanca, as both characters share the same morals, ideas, and emotions (or lack thereof). If I had a top ten film noir list, this movie would be on it. Men in fedoras wearing overcoats, a femme fatale or two, and people with questionable morals populate this film. It’s dark, edgy, and suspenseful. John Huston brings the audience into the film in the way of visual effects. One can almost smell the cigarette smoke or feel alone in a dark alley at night. For fans of classic cinema, it’s a must see and as a film adaptation, it literally gives life to Dashiell Hammett’s classic detective story.

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About the Author: Shannon H. lives in Southern California where she spends her time reading, listening to music, attending comic conventions, and coming up with ideas for a few novels. Follow her on Instagram at Writer4God.

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