The Maltese Falcon

by Dashiell Hammett

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Critical Evaluation

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Dashiell Hammett was the leading writer of what came to be called the hard-boiled school of American mystery writers. Hard-boiled crime fiction began with the pulp magazines, which were exceedingly popular before the then-new entertainment medium of television began to undermine them in the late 1940’s. The magazines, printed on cheap paper, sold for ten or fifteen cents a piece. There were many different kinds of pulp magazines, including true crime, mysteries, romances, Westerns, and science fiction. Being directed to a mass audience, they were written in simple English and emphasized action and dialogue. Many of the writers were hacks who were paid a penny a word and did not have the talent or motivation to produce quality literature. From the beginning of his career, Hammett distinguished himself as an exception.

One reason for Hammett’s distinction as a mystery writer was that he had actually been a private detective himself for many years. He knew what he was talking and writing about. His early writing career was linked with the legendary Black Mask, a pulp magazine featuring male-oriented action and adventure. Hammett also was a gifted writer, although he did not have a great deal of formal education. His practical knowledge, his care and concern about his craft, and his sheer talent made him the leader in his field. The Maltese Falcon was originally published as a serial in Black Mask and then published in hard cover. It is Hammett’s best novel.

One outstanding stylistic feature of the novel is that is was written in a totally objective manner. The author describes a setting and then tells only what the characters say and do. He never attempts to go into any character’s mind and explain what he or she is thinking. The story is told entirely from Spade’s point of view. The author does not indicate that Spade actually observes everything, but Spade is always present. Nothing happens that he could not have observed.

Hammett deliberately maintains a very fast pace. This was something he learned to do as a Black Mask writer. One of the ways he maintains this pace is by crowding several different events into the same chapter. A scene that begins in one chapter often ends in the next, while a new scene begins before that chapter ends. The reader is given the impression that Spade is constantly on the move, conducting his investigation while trying to cope with problems others are creating for him.

Hammett was famous for his ability to write dialogue. Good dialogue sounds realistic and conveys information without doing so conspicuously. It also characterizes the speaker. Because The Maltese Falcon is written in an entirely objective manner and is full of good dialogue, it could easily be turned into a stage play—and Hammett indicated to his publisher that he would like to see such a play produced.

It was obvious that the novel would also make a good motion picture; indeed, it has been adapted to film several times. The most famous version is The Maltese Falcon (1941), directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, the role that made him a superstar.

In addition to writing outstanding dialogue, Hammett wrote clean, straightforward, graphic prose that differed radically from the convoluted, affected prose to be found in many of the classic English mystery novels, as well as in much of the other English and Anglophilic literature produced before writers such as Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, and Hammett began writing in the language used by ordinary Americans.

The theme of The Maltese Falcon can be summed up in a...

(This entire section contains 909 words.)

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familiar quotation from the Bible: “The love of money is the root of all evil.” A reviewer wrote that Hammett, who had strong socialist sympathies and who admired Karl Marx, “regarded moral evil as economically determined.” According to character Gutman, the real falcon had a history of bloodshed from its creation in Malta in the sixteenth century. Greed brings out the worst in Gutman, Cairo, and Brigid; it leads directly or indirectly to the deaths of Archer, Thursby, Jacobi, and Gutman. Wilmer will be executed for three murders. Brigid will spend at least twenty years in prison if she avoids execution. The falcon might have led to Spade’s own downfall if he had not been shrewd enough to circumvent the traps that everyone, including the police, set for him. When the falcon turns out to be a fake, it symbolizes the futility of materialistic values.

Hammett was responsible for the creation of a distinctively American type of hard-boiled mystery. He influenced, because of his talent, craftsmanship, and seriousness of purpose, crime writers around the world. Critics in the United States, England, France, and Germany acknowledge that Hammett elevated the mystery genre to the rank of quality literature. His influence can be seen in mainstream fiction as well as in genre fiction.

Films based on Hammett’s novels influenced filmmakers worldwide. Conversely, the films influenced novelists because few novelists do not dream of selling a book to Hollywood. Hollywood made Hammett rich and famous, but its easy money and notoriously loose living undermined him physically and mentally. His heavy drinking ruined his career and hastened his death. He died a pauper, leaving nothing to posterity but his unique literary creations and his personal legend as a proud, independent individual with a strict code of integrity, one not unlike that of his most famous character, Sam Spade.

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The Maltese Falcon