Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon
Published by Diogenes, 1974
Whether as a book or as a film, many crime stories of our times are characterized by the “hardboiled detective”, a hard-nosed investigator who crosses boundaries when investigating and touches on the border of the legal and the illegal himself. This new type of detective was born in San Francisco in the 1920s, more specifically in Dashiell Hammett’s novel “The Maltese Falcon”. He was one of the first authors to reverse the long-established roles of “good” and “evil”. Published in 1930, his book was added to the list of the 100 best 20th-century English-language novels.
In this novel, the detective Sam Spade chases after a disappeared 16th-century statue in San Francisco. This statue is embellished with precious gemstones and is said to have disappeared centuries ago. The Spanish King had received this gold statue representing a falcon as a gift from the Knights Hospitallers before it got missing during a sea passage after a pirate attack. When it arrived in Algiers, the statue was coated with black paint to conceal its true value, which did not make the search for the statue any easier.
After an odyssey with stops at various dealers, it is said to have turned up in San Francisco, and Sam is commissioned to retrieve the falcon. Such a treasure naturally cause covetousness, and soon some shady individuals try to get their hands on it. Everyone is looking for the missing falcon and always gets in each other’s way; their paths, however, always cross with Sam Spade in every possible way.
Hammett’s detective is anything but the typical detective who chases after evil – he is a cynical and brusque private investigator, who, like all the novel’s other figures, is shrewd himself. The characters do not care about the fact that morality and law are actually of secondary importance and being neglected; in the search for the falcon the boundaries between good and evil dissolve and make all persons appear corrupt.
The Maltese Falcon is one of the first detective stories, which breaks with the classic “good detective” cliché and provides the detective genre with a new type of main character. It is important to bear this in mind when reading the book nowadays – after all, a detective or investigator who prioritizes his own moral convictions over governing law has by now taken root in the majority of crime novels, and is by no means a peculiarity. But it was Hammett who pioneered with his book and laid the foundation for the further development of the “hardboiled detective” in literature and the cinematic counterpart through the emergence of the film noir. The 1941 film adaptation of The Maltese Falcon with Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade is considered as the onset of film noir’s classic era. This adaptation of the novel was the most successful of all three – this is indicative of the novel’s high popularity.
Many of Hammett’s ideas derived from his own experience as a detective working for an agency from 1915 onwards, before starting his career as a writer. Apparently, these experiences served as an inspiration for his work that gives a very realistic account of the criminal milieu.
As successful as he was as a writer – the Archie Goodwin Award was awarded to him in 2011 in recognition for his literary work – as little success he had in private life. A member of the Communist Party, in the 1950s he suffered during the McCarthy era and was even sentenced to imprisonment. As a destitute man, he died from pneumonia in 1961.
Translated by Annika Backe