The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting V under the more flexible V of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, V. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The V motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down – from high flat temples – in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.
He said to Effie Perine: “Yes, sweetheart?”
She was a lanky sunburned girl whose tan dress of thin woolen stuff clung to her with an effect of dampness. Her eyes were brown and playful in a shiny boyish face. She finished shutting the door behind her, leaned against it, and said: “There’s a girl wants to see you. Her name’s Wonderly.”
“I guess so. You’ll want to see her anyway: she’s a knockout.”
“Shoo her in, darling,” said Spade. “Shoo her in.”
Effie Perine opened the door again, following it back into the outer office, standing with a hand on the knob while saying: “Will you come in, Miss Wonderly?”
Hammett has the same eye for people that Sam Spade has – their looks, their demeanor, their actions. Unfortunately while he describes everything that Spade sees, he never describes what Spade thinks. When smiling-eyed red-headed Brigid O’Shaughnessy brings Sam a case, the detective might know that he can’t take the facts at face value, but the reader doesn’t. We ride with Spade along the mean streets of San Francisco as he furiously tries to figure out what is going on, but he has the distinct advantage of being an experienced detective while we are (or at least I am) just an inexperienced observer. Spade is confused and frustrated by the mystery at hand, but without Spade’s experience the reader is even more confused and frustrated.
Luckily the writing is so cool, so slick, so polished, that staring at it for a few hours is still a pleasure.
“I want you to know that I couldn’t be any fonder of you if you were my own son; but – well, by Gad! – if you lose a son it’s possible to get another – and there’s only one Maltese falcon.”
A treasure worth killing for. Sam Spade, a slightly shopworn private eye with his own solitary code of ethics. A perfumed grifter named Joel Cairo, a fat man named Gutman, and Brigid O’Shaughnessy, a beautiful and treacherous woman whose loyalties shift at the drop of a dime. These are the ingredients of Dashiell Hammett’s coolly glittering gem of detective fiction, a novel that has haunted three generations of readers.