This semester, my university’s English seminar course is Detective Fiction. We’re learning background information on the genre as we delve into detective works. Our first title is Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel, The Maltese Falcon. I really enjoyed this book as an introduction to the group; here’s the recap:
Private detective Sam Spade is approached by a slew of mysterious characters with various loyalties, all in pursuit of a historical treasure. There’s murder, gunfights, and break-ins; perhaps the most enjoyable facet of the mystery is attempting to unravel the motivations of Spade himself. Spade is an enigma: his appearance, mannerisms, and words conceal much of his character. In class discussion, we reflected on how memorable, intriguing characters render stories timeless. This definitely rings true in The Maltese Falcon.
World-building and detail is conveyed in a fashion befitting an inspector being the central voice of the novel. There are lots of physical descriptions, and not a ton of “telling.” I found this refreshing. Hammett utilizes sparse description without venturing into Hemingway territory; he adds a bit more flesh and color to his characters and the San Francisco setting. Here are a few of my favorite lines:
3: “He looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.”
19: “It’s a long while since I burst out crying because policemen didn’t like me.”
22: “Spade looked at the lieutenant with yellow-gray eyes that held an almost exaggerated amount of candor.”
28: “‘You’re an angel,’ he said tenderly through smoke. ‘a nice rattle-brained angel.’”
46: “His skin was the complexion of polished lead except where the elbow had reddened his cheek.”
94: “The boy spoke two words, the first a short guttural verb, the second, ‘you.’” [I just think this is such a creative and classy way to include swearing in a story. I’ve never seen it done this way, and I found it really amusing and clever.]
104: “As he advanced to meet Spade all his bulbs rose and shook and fell separately with each step, in the manner of clustered soap-bubbles not yet released from the pipe through which they had been blown.”
174: “His dark eyes had the surface shine of lacquer.”
It’s not a long read, landing around 200 pages. If you’re like me and you’ve never explored mysteries or detective fiction enough to develop a liking for it, this is a good entry point. Of course, there are always the short stories—Holmes, or Agatha Christie’s—as well.
Have you ever read a detective fiction piece that stood out to you? Let me know in the comments. 🙂