Dashiell Hammett. The Maltese Falcon. 1930. Hardboiled detective novel.
Read this novel by all means—Mr. Hammett is the founder of the hardboiled detective mystery sub-genre—but please treat it as an influential document rather than as a literary classic. It doesn’t merit the superlative.
In the hindsight of eighty years, Mr. Hammett comes off as unintentionally hilarious. I was continually chortling at his campy dialogue (“Shoo her in, darling, shoo her in”) and snorting at his overuse of a Macguffin (a falcon-shaped figurine that has no role other than narrative impetus). Particularly farcical is the self-consciously tough-guy persona of Samuel Spade, the beefy and amoral private eye who copes adroitly with the unexpected instead of doing much “real” (investigative or deductive) detective work. Sam Spade is—no other word for it—a brute, a sullen and misogynistic sonofabitch who’s equally at home rassling with ruffians or screwing his partner’s wife.
I’d like to add that Hammett wrote women so crudely that I feel embarrassed for the national literature. Hemingway generally respected women, even if he never understood them, but this bruiser frankly loathed the second sex! Brigid O’Shaughnessy is alternately devious and helpless; Iva Archer clings and nags; and Effie Perine is dutifully self-effacing. As Tolstoy would say, Hammett lacks the correct moral relation to his characters, and no amount of sharp writing can compensate for so severe a defect. The Maltese Falcon may be a hardboiled classic, but as far as I’m concerned it’s about as delectable as an egg of that genre. Stick with Hemingway.