Sam Spade is not a good man. But in a world of liars, thieves, and murderers he’s the closest thing to a good man. So when his partner, Archer, is killed during a routine tail he sets out to discover who did it. Not because he liked the man, in fact Sam is sleeping with Archer’s wife on the side, but because when your partner is killed you bring their killer to justice. It’s just what you do. Throughout the twisting and turning mystery classic The Maltese Falcon, writer Dasheill Hammet never leads the reader to think Sam is a hero and the book is that much stronger for it.
Published in 1929, The Maltese Falcon traffics in some of the more common narrative conventions we simply take for granted now. The anti-hero hard drinking detective, the femme fatale, and the MacGuffin; that all purpose person, place, or thing that everyone is chasing and sets the narrative in motion. Anecdotally coined by Hitchcock, a MacGuffin famously powers the Indiana Jones movies as well as virtually every adventure film and video game ever made.
In Hammet’s book – And the very popular Humphrey Bogart film of the same name – the MacGuffin is the title falcon, an ebony statue, that everyone is chasing, double crossing, and killing to obtain. As these stories tend to go the backstory on the Falcon is told just before the last act adding some historical background to the quest. It’s an intriguing story that lends significant color to the plot but in true MacGuffin fashion it is entirely beside the point and serves only to introduce us to a rogue’s gallery of schemers.
Top of the list is Brigid O’Shaughnessy, a beautiful woman that hires Spade and Archer to find her younger sister. This quickly turns out to be a con leading Spade down a rabbit hole mixing it up with amateur thieves, a money man, and his hired gun to find the Falcon. Along the way Spade must stay one step ahead of the cops and the DA who have him as their number one suspect in Archer’s murder. Throughout the caper Spade smokes like a chimney, punching and fast talking his way through a series of scrapes and close calls. Hammet’s hard-boiled dialogue is a lot of fun to read and Spade’s verbal gymnastics are a highlight.
After finishing the book I went and immediately looked to see how many other Sam Spade books Hammet wrote. Perhaps the most surprising thing about The Maltese Falcon is that this was the only full length novel that featured detective Sam Spade – though Hammet did feature Spade in four short stories. Although he never had another outing on his own Spade was a precursor and strong influence to other famous characters in the mystery genre, notably Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. It’s a testament to Dasheill Hammet’s extraordinary novel, helped by the iconic performance from Humphrey Bogart in the movie, that the character lives on in popular culture.