When it comes to detective stories there is only one writer, and one book, for that matter, that hits all the buttons. The writer is Dashiell Hammett, and his book, The Maltese Falcon.
As a teenager I enjoyed Raymond Chandler and his wisecracking PI, Philip Marlowe. Nothing could surpass him, I thought at the time, for enjoyment in detective fiction. But that all changed when in later life I read Hammett’s The Thin Man, and then the mother of all detective fiction, The Maltese Falcon.
Up to that point, I didn’t think Chandler could ever be possibly dethroned in my head. But after casting my eyes over The Thin Man, considered a lightweight novel, compared to Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key, I realised how wrong I was.
The Thin Man, which was the last of his five published novels, also happened to be a very thin book indeed. But that is the beauty of his writing. He was so efficient in his prose that the story revolves around a few characters in walking distance of each other. There is humour and a general ease in style that makes it effortless to read again and again and again. The husband and wife team of Nick and Nora Charles and their witty banter led to a spate of films and set a blueprint for comedy between the sexes ever since.
And when I thought it couldn’t get any better I browsed The Maltese Falcon in a small London bookshop during a lunch break and forgot to return to the office. These are the most cherished moments in finding that right book that fits you. Time just seems to stand still when they get into your hands.
The Maltese Falcon marked a step-change in detective fiction. Its hardboiled style and darker approach to crime, dragged readers away from the cosy upper-class detectives created by mystery writers from the Golden Age. The British whodunits were being passed over for the grittier American urban crime thriller where the hero was working class.
Hammett’s Sam Spade, the dry-witted gumshoe, would a decade later turn into the more defined Philip Marlowe created by Chandler. Both characters would become the template for all future pulp fiction private detectives until they were eventually replaced by cops in police procedural thrillers.
The Maltese Falcon had the requisite MacGuffin, a femme fatale, crooked chancers, and of course a hero with his own code of ethics straight from the Knights of the Round Table. The plot is linear and not overly complicated, unlike those of Chandler’s, and there is humour too. But it is the directness of his writing, using a third person point-of-view, which allows the action to speak.
Of course, Hammett had one advantage over Chandler in that he had been a real detective for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, although not much is known about his job there. Hammett, certainly had a harder upbringing than Chandler, having to leave school at 13. Both were born in the US with unreliable fathers, but Chandler thanks to his Irish mother was classically educated at Dulwich College in London, a private school whose pupils included the authors P.G. Wodehouse and C.S. Forester.
Chandler published his first novel The Big Sleep in 1939, introducing Philip Marlowe some nine years after Hammett’s Sam Spade. But the detective’s first person narration brought more immediacy in his story as well as more scope for humour and style.
Farewell, My Lovely followed a year later and soon Marlowe was hitting the big time on the silver screen. It was not long before Chandler turned his hand to scriptwriting, just as Hammett had done many years earlier.
His self-styled similes became his stock-in-trade as a writer and brought him much admiration in the literary world, something that was less apparent in the UK with regards to Hammett’s work.
The British-based Crime Writers’ Association ranked The Maltese Falcon at No.10 out of the top 100 crime books, while placing Chandler’s The Big Sleep at No.2 and Farewell, My Lovely at No.7. But the Mystery Writers of America ranked The Maltese Falcon as the best of all time mysteries, ahead of Chandler. Over the years, the US association has ranked Hammett’s book at No.1 or No.2.
Hammett’s influence is everywhere from Chandler to Le Carré, to Elmore Leonard and even Len Deighton. While he may not have been the first writer to create a hard-boiled detective, he was innovative and original, justifying his classic status.
My only gripe with Hammett was that he gave Sam Spade only one outing in full-length fiction. That was a very mean thing to do in my book.
Keep up to date with Tom Claver at www.tomclaver.co.uk