The Maltese Falcon

Hammett’s books are dense with action and full of twists. Snooze for a second and you’ll have to go back and re-read the whole chapter. While many have commented about Hammett’s hardboiled style and seedy underworld characters, what really struck me in this one was how the author keeps the reader grasping throughout. You never know what’s going to happen next, nor do you know the significance of events as they’re happening.

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

You’re always trying to piece together what the latest twist means for Sam Spade, and for Brigid, and who’s on whose side. Sam himself is a cipher. You never know how he’ll react in any situation, and his reactions almost always surprise. Why is he so indifferent to Archer’s death? Why does he pick fights that he’s not sure he can win? How does he really feel about Effie and Iva and Brigid?

In a poorly written book, a reader might be asking these questions because the author didn’t flesh out his characters. In this one, the questions just add to the suspense, to the feeling of constantly being off-balance and a step behind. They fuel the reader’s desire to learn more, and Hammett keeps you so immersed in action that before you can work out the answer to your last burning question, two more pop up.

How the hell this guy plotted his stories is beyond me. When you trace the arc of a Hitchcock plot, it’s like watching the flight path of a swallow. Twists and turns, for sure, but ultimately a graceful path that in the end seems natural, almost inevitable. Tracing a Hammett plots is like watching a drunken butterfly on a blustery day. It’s path is so erratic, you get the sense even it doesn’t know where it’s going. But somehow it winds up in the right place.