Monday, March 18, 2013

Sam Spade's Hard-Knock Life

The Maltese Falcon
Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon is a very famous mystery written in the noir style.  It stars the cynical private detective Sam Spade, inspiration for so many hard-working, lonely detectives in novels today.  Spade and his partner are asked to help a woman find her sister, but things go wrong very quickly and Spade learns that no one is being very honest with him.  Everyone wants the Maltese Falcon, a beautiful stone bird of high value.  But no one knows where it is.  Except, perhaps, Sam Spade.

Obviously, this book has been on my radar for a long time, as it's a title that everyone knows.  I'm not sure exactly what motivated me to buy it - I think I was in a detective story phase and figured that I should read the mystery that everyone seems to know.  So I bought it and let it sit on my shelf for a couple of years and then managed to remove it from my TBR pile by renting it on audiobook from the library.

The audiobook I ended up renting was a production with a full cast and sound effects and everything!  It definitely helped me fit into the atmosphere of the book.  I felt as though I were back in the 1920s, in the golden age of radio, listening to my favorite serial on my way home from work.

There were some really great things.  For example, the book is very quotable, and the jokes are delivered in a very dry, sarcastic tone.  Also, the book just is noir.  The actor playing Spade had a very gruff voice.  He called women "sweetheart," and they responded.  He walked along the foggy streets of San Francisco.  The characters were hard to like, hard to trust, and willing to do almost anything to get what they wanted.  I can see how this story inspired so many others about cynical detectives that work for their own sense of justice, even if they're not always on the right side of the law.

While I can see why this book is so popular, I didn't love it.  To me, there were too many people for such a short book, and not one was developed fully.  We know nothing of their thoughts or motivations - only what they say and do to Spade.  It's hard for me to love a story when I don't feel any pull towards the characters.

Also, while I enjoyed the audiobook production a lot, it was a little confusing.  There were a lot of different actors, and at times it was difficult to differentiate between people's voices, particularly when there were a lot of people in the same scene.  Perhaps if it had been a longer book, I'd have had more time to learn each character's voice, but there were many characters, several had accents, and the whole book was only about 3 hours long, so there just wasn't enough opportunity.

While this isn't one for my keeper pile, I'm really glad I read it, if only to understand the mystery genre better. I hope to watch the movie adaptation, too, with Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade!


  1. hmmm doesn't sound like anything I'll be rushing to listen to/read. Thanks for your thoughts, though! I've definitely heard of the book but never really considered reading it anyway!

  2. I saw the movie not long ago, and was just taken aback by how much things had changed from that time to today! I didn't quite get all the machinations, but the story was interesting, and I am wondering if this might be an audiobook to savor over an afternoon.

  3. A full cast? Cool :D I have never listened to an audio like that before

  4. I adore this book -- but my wife and I are slavish Hammett fans. I think we've listened to that audio version you did -- which was good -- but the book (and then the Bogart movie) are so much better. Sorry you didn't love it!

  5. Anonymous3/19/2013

    The full cast sounds amazing, the book not so much but good all the same. I think I'd be put off the audio, though - because whilst it is amazing it would be quite distracting. It must make quite a different experience, narrative-wise, where the author's voice is literally divided in reality.

  6. I chose Chandler's The Big Sleep as my intro to the noir genre (also great, with caveats), but I am really keen to read this too. I think I might read it, though -- as much as the three hour audio is tempting (will take me much longer to read it, I'm sure) the fact that there are so many characters makes it a no-go for me, unless I've read it first. I would have too much trouble keeping things sorted, and it sounds like that will be a challenge anyway.

  7. I can imagine that this audio version was a lot of fun to listen to; I did enjoy watching the film, but I think I'll opt for your thoughts on the book, rather than listen/read for myself. Still, I can certainly relate to wanting to discover the early inspirations for later practitioners in this genre and others...something about the idea of getting right to the source that is inherently appealing.

  8. I actually enjoyed this in print, but I'm not sure about a full cast recording. Sounds a little confusing, but I do like the idea of sounds effects.

  9. Anonymous3/21/2013

    Not that you shouldn't watch The Maltese Falcon, but if you are going to watch a Bogart noir film, may I recommend you pick one where he costars with Lauren Bacall? They are crazy awesome together. They're not just coasting on their reputation. Lauren Bacall is so, so, so sexy. The Big Sleep. That's where it's at.

    (I know I should read Dashiell Hammett but I just don't like noir. I just don't.)

  10. This kind of recording is exactly what I've been looking to experience in an audiobook. I don't have much experience with them, and the ones I've listened to have been SUPER boring, read monotonously by a single narrator. Your comments on the performance alone may inspire me to listen to this one for that sole reason.

  11. PS—If you're interested in more Hammett stories, you should WATCH the Thin Man movies. The characters are so fun—so snarky! And BOOZY! It's apparently always time for a cocktail!


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