Like the Big Read? Here's Some Stuff You Should Know!

By Ralph Hipp

I'm nearing the end of Dashiell Hammett's "Maltese Falcon," our book this year in the Big Read.  If I kept on plowing through, I'd be finished by now.. it's not that long a book, and it's a very interesting storyline to follow right through to the conclusion.  WIBW and the Library hopes you're joining us, and that you're liking this 1930 classic too!   It's still placed at the top of the stack of books that set the "high mark" for their category of writing, and a book for other authors to aspire to!

What separates "The Maltese Falcon" from many, many other mysteries is the fascinating personality of Sam Spade, who is a literary and film icon.  Notice the book's direct language, there's no flowery prose or flowing poetry in this story!  While we can't help but connect Sam Spade to the looks of Humphrey Bogart, Spade is actually described as having blond hair and yellow gray eyes, with angular nostrils, almost a Satanic figure.  But as with Bogart in many of his movies, he's not so much concerned with being allied with any one of the Falcon's characters.  His main motivation is remaining true to his slain buddy.  And it's a story of people looking for their dreams.

As the book starts, we actually learn Sam is having an affair with his partner, Miles Archer.. who's shot to death at the start of the book, along with character Floyd Thursby.  A redheaded woman enters Sam's office using her first alias and her first false story to get Sam investigating the case.  Of course, we know she really wants Sam to help her find the Maltese Falcon, just as the other very interesting characters in the book want to find the rare bird.. the slimy Joel Cairo, the very large, very pink skinned Casper Gutman.. and the manipulative and alluring Brigid O'Shaughnessy.  These two plots of Spade and Archer, and the Falcon, are connected throughout the book.  Hammett's granddaughter tells Falcon fans the story actually takes place over a five-day period in December, 1928, if that helps you follow the story!

ABOUT DASHIELL HAMMETT:

Dashiell Hammett was born in 1894, and spent a lot of his boyhood on his grandfather's farm near Baltimore.  His dad was the kind of guy who could never catch a break.. and young Dashiell never had what you'd call a close relationship with his father.  He battled tuberculosis and other respiratory illnesses, and from that, became a voracious reader.  Hammett, almost like Harry Truman reading every book in the Independence Library, at least promised to read every single book in the San Francisco Public Library, but had little chance of getting to the end of the bookstack there.   

Hammett tried to serve in the military,  joining the Army during World War I, but his health problems forced him out after only 4 months, with an Honorable Discharge.  He signed up to work with the Pinkerton's Investigative Agency.  The job was a perfect match for Hammett's endless curiosity and sense of adventure.  Dashiell Hammett is certainly one of very few writers who can actually describe what it's like to be a private detective who had a few gunshots fired at him. 

ABOUT THE MALTESE FALCON:

The seed and the germ of this story came from Dashiell reading books about the Knights of Malta and the Crusades.  The Knights made a fortune guarding shipping lanes in the Mediterranean to stop piracy.  Because they were given the gift of the Island of Malta by the Spanish Crown, they gave a gift every year to the Crown to show their gratitude.  Do you see where this is going?  So, anyway, one of those gifts was a jewel encrusted Falcon.  The Falcon went missing in the Middle Ages, turned up in Constantinople during the 1920s, quickly becoming an object sought after by criminals, arts dealers and legitimate collectors.. along with the fictional characters in Hammett's novel. 

ABOUT SAM SPADE:

Famous detectives in novels like Sherlock Holmes, and Miss Marple, have their distinct personalities and are either "gentlemen" or amateur detectives who do it for fun.  Sam Spade is nothing like them.  He's rough, cynical and hard-nosed.  Hammett was often compared to mystery writers like Raymond Chandler and Ross McDonald.  Chandler saw his hero as a knight in shining armor.  McDonald viewed his detective creations as social workers.. figuring out to help somebody in a jam.  Sam Spade does his job, and follows (or makes up) his own rules as he goes along.  You can really see this as the cops question Sam about who killed whom, in the beginning of the book.

Finding out all these things from the "Big Read" has sure helped me enjoy the book.  And I can't wait to get to the end, where all these strange characters watch Sam unwrap the paper from around the Falcon and get to their own finish of what owning this bird would mean to them!     Ralph

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