Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a gorgeous dame (of course she’s a red-head) walks into a private investigator’s office with wide, innocent, yet clearly panicked eyes, needing his help. Of course, for a gal like that, he’s willing to help; the cash incentive doesn’t hurt either. The detective lights a cigarette and kicks back to listen to her plight, not giving away his real impressions as she spills her tale. Not all is as it seems, though, about her, about her situation, about the people after her, about the titular artifact itself, and before he knows it, our hero is trying to stay two steps ahead of both the police and the bad guys.
Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, which began in serialized form in Black Mask magazine, introduces Sam Spade, one of, if not the, most well-known gumshoe detectives (who looks, coincidentally, like Humphrey Bogart in my mind’s eye). He plays his cards close to the chest, doesn’t particularly respect authority (particularly if they are getting in his way), seems to have a knack for attracting the ladies without trying, and is just clever and resourceful enough to land on his feet when trouble catches up with him. He is, in short, what many detectives wish they could be if they didn’t have to follow those pesky rules, a real son of a gun. The wise-cracking, non-compliant detective trope feels like a cliché, until you remember that, like Dracula to modern-day vampires, he is the original, and the rest are imitators.
The Maltese Falcon had enough twists and turns to keep me guessing, and Hammett does a nice job showing readers only part of what’s going on in scenes, whether that is only through hearing half of a phone conversation or because, like whoever he’s dealing with, we don’t know what is going on behind those yellow-grey eyes. Spade is clearly a couple steps ahead and knows the score, but we as readers don’t see the connections he’s making right away, and some of them, not until the big, climactic reveal.
Reading this was a bit like peeking into a time capsule. While contemporary good guys are no longer allowed to smoke, Spade is frequently rolling and lighting a cigarette; this is frequently accompanied by a drink while chatting with a suspect. Female characters are secretaries, over-attached lovers, or damsels in distress, and they’re frequently “angel” or “sweetheart.” Secretary Effie Perine is relegated to a support/gopher role, and even femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy is tasked with making breakfast while the menfolk talk things out; these have to be viewed in light of their time, though. And the slang, by gad, that slang really is quite swell.
There’s definitely some nostalgic appeal here for anyone looking for a good old-fashioned, hard-boiled mystery. For similar reading, try fellow Black Mask contributor Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlow novels. Gary Lovisi’s article “The Hard-Boiled Way” also provides a nice overview of hard-boiled detective stories, including both classic and contemporary contributions to the genre.