The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Call me an uncultured Cretin (it's true), but I've never seen the movie, so I have nothing to compare it to but the only other classic noir book I've ever read (told you I was a Cretin), Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. Where Chandler's prose sets a baseline from which he can occasionally spring a trick in the form of a clever turn of phrase, Hammett's prose is as straightforward as it gets, which I saw as a minus. That said, the blandness of the language lets the reader concentrate on plot and characterization, where Hammett shines a touch more than Chandler. Unlike the overly-convoluted un-plot of The Big Sleep, which Chandler admits he just sort of made up as he went along and never fully understood himself, Hammett unravels a mystery, the details of which are made very clear by the end of the book. That's not to say that it's transparent, by any means. Sam Spade, the protagonist, is perpetually surrounded by liars and he's a pretty good fabricator of truths, or at least a master at twisting the truth, himself. There are plenty of surprises in store for the reader unfamiliar with the story (i.e., one who hasn't seen the movie yet - shame on you for peeking ahead!), and the reveals at the end are rewarding enough. Part of the reason for this is that Spade, while staying true to his inner self, is a great wearer of masks. His unexpected actions, which several other characters remark upon, might actually be coldly-calculated, rather than merely whimsical. And though one must question whether Spade is a good guy or a bad guy, throughout, in the end we see that he simultaneously remains true to himself while revealing his true underlying morality. Hammett shows a deft hand in presenting all of the villainous, bungling supporting cast, but shows the master-stroke in hiding the real Sam Spade until the end of the novel, where Spade's strong sense of ethics is unveiled to the reader. Perhaps this is why I found him a more fascinating, deeper character than Chandler's Philip Marlowe (whom I admired, actually).
All told, though, I'm glad I read both.
And there will be more noir in my future. That's no mystery.
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