The Maltese Falcon

by Dashiell Hammett

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Critical Overview

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When The Maltese Falcon was first published, Dashiell Hammett was little known outside of the small, specific world of crime fiction. This is the book that changed that and brought his name to the attention of reviewers of literary works. For instance, William Curtis, reviewing the book in Town & Country, an upscale leisure publication, admitted, after comparing Hammett to literary figures of the time (including Ernest Hemingway):

I think Mr. Hammett has something quite as definite to say, quite as decided an impetus to give the course of newness in the development of the American tongue, as any man now writing. Of course, he’s gone about it the wrong way to attract respectful attention from the proper sources. . . . He has not been picked up by any of the foghorn columnists. He’s only a writer of murder mystery stories.

In his review for the New York Herald Tribune, Will Cuppy wrote, “This department announces a new and pretty huge enthusiasm, to wit: Dashiell Hammett. Moreover, it would not surprise us one whit if Mr. Hammett should turn out to be the Great American Mystery Writer.” The humor magazine Judge pronounced the writing in The Maltese Falcon to be “better than Hemingway.”

By 1934, the novel was so recognized for its literary merit that it was included in the Modern Library collection. Hammett’s subsequent novels— The Glass Key and The Thin Man—were championed by reviewers, but they also found more flaws in them than they did in The Maltese Falcon, which remained the high point of his literary output.

Hammett’s reputation remained static throughout the 1930s and 1940s, as he went year after year without producing another novel, though interest in The Maltese Falcon surged when the film version starring Humphrey Bogart was released in 1941. In the 1950s, Hammett was sent to jail for his association with Communists, and the House Un-American Activities Committee actively worked to keep his works banned from libraries. By the 1960s, though, the anti-Communist hysteria was forgotten, and soon after Hammett’s death in 1961 the reading public returned to him. In the early 1980s, in particular, there came a slew of biographies and critical studies of him, firmly ensconcing Hammett’s name into the halls of American literature. As the great crime novelist Ross MacDonald took time to observe in his 1981 autobiography, Self-Portrait: Ceaselessly into the Past, “I think The Maltese Falcon, with its astonishingly imaginative energy persisting undiminished after a third of a century, is tragedy of a new kind, deadpan tragedy.”

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