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"The Falcon’s Diamond Anniversary"

Editors Note: This post also appears over at Blogcritics and is reprinted with permision of The Author.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of Dashiell Hammett’s classic tale of detective fiction, Maltese Falcon. Immortalized in Humphrey Bogart’s breakout role (before Sam Spade, he was largely locked into playing two-bit gangsters and psychotic tough guys who usually got whacked), the Falcon has actually seen screen time in several versions over the decades, and many authors have tried to emulate Hammett’s clipped prose and taut characters. Hammett’s original vision, however, remains one of the standards by which all other hard-boiled detectives are judged.

The book tracks the story of laconic private detective Sam Spade. A young woman hires Spade and his partner, Miles Archer, ostensibly to help her find her runaway sister and extricate her from the clutches of a vile fellow named Floyd Thursby. That very night, Archer is killed, apparently while tailing Thursby. Shortly thereafter, Thursby is also killed, gunned down in front of his hotel. The cops think Spade might have been responsible for at least one of the murders, and “lean on him” plenty. But that’s only the beginning, as the young lady turns out to have more than a few secrets of her own and Spade’s office looks like it features a revolving door for a disparate cast of villains all hot to locate “the black bird.”

Seventy-five years on, many people already know most of the details – or they feel familiar, if only because so many subsequent authors have followed in Hammett’s rather large footsteps. If the details are fuzzy in your mind, or if you haven’t ever read anything by Hammett, well, you should immediately run out and buy this book, because your literary education is sorely lacking. In Sam Spade, Hammett created one of the compelling characters of America between world wars – the type of man Raymond Chandler wrote about when he described the essence of the detective in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder.”

Spade is tough and occasionally brutal. He plays fast and loose with society’s rules and regulations when it suits his pursuit of the truth, but he maintains a sense of personal integrity throughout – his rules are the only ones he won’t break. His tough exterior can be pierced by a pretty face and a slender leg. He rather expects to be betrayed and yet is disappointed when it happens. And while his wearily accepts the foibles of human nature, both in himself and others, it doesn’t seem to stop him from his dogged pursuit of the truth and his own perhaps cockeyed sense of justice.

Along with The Maltese Falcon, Vintage Books is also releasing three other Hammett books in new trade paperback editions in celebration of Spade’s anniversary.

In Red Harvest, Hammett unleashes his nameless “Continental Op” on a corrupt town that just lost its only “honest” citizen – the crusading son of the town’s brutal founder. The Continental Op is like a 1930s edition of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name: he does a Fistful of Dollars routine here as he wanders into town, sets opposing factions against one another, and lights the tinder to an already explosive situation. All in the name of cleaning the place up. Here again, Hammett’s characters aren’t the politically correct softies that so many modern detectives have become; he doesn’t make quiche and nobody really knows what kind of music he likes. The guy just does his job. Robert B. Parker’s Spenser may have borrowed the Continental Op’s modus operandi (which is basically to wander around stirring the pot until something happens, whatever the “something” might be), but Spenser’s got nothing on the Op’s rather cavalier attitude.

In The Thin Man, Hammett created another pair of indelible characters – Nick and Nora Charles, immortalized in film by William Powell and Myrna Loy. The film series picked up on the socialite existence and the playful banter so evocative of the screwball comedies of the 1930s. However, Hammett’s characters are far more complicated in print than they were on screen, and Nick does far more detective work here than Powell ever really did.

The Thin Man is a somewhat complicated murder mystery featuring a dead woman, a missing man, his estranged family, and a host of possible murderers. It also has Nick and Nora, a playful duo whose unshakeable equanimity makes them exceptionally intriguing characters.

Vintage Hammett is an interesting book. I initially assumed it to be a collection of say, Hammett’s short stories, but it’s not. Instead, it’s a collection of excerpts from his longer works intersperced with some of Hammett’s short stories. Personally, I’m not sure that I see the point to reading a portion of The Maltese Falcon when you should really be reading the whole thing, but I suppose that for those who are interested in just a taste of a master of hardboiled detective fare, Vintage Hammett is something to consider. It’s also worth it for the short stories, including the Continental Op stories “The House in Turk Street,” “The Girl with the Silver Eyes,” and “Flypaper.” It’s worth it for the short stories; the longer works should really be enjoyed in their entirety.

You can read more of Bill Wallo's articles on his Website: Wallo World.