Reading the book for the first time after seeing the 1941 film (unbelievably the third big screen adaptation in ten years) a couple of times many years ago I was struck by how much the dialogue seemed familiar and re-watching the film this week has shown I was right. Hammett’s words have, in the main, been lifted and dropped into the mouths of the actors and the whole thing zings along both on page and screen.
An initial surprise though in the book is that Sam Spade is described as looking “rather pleasantly like a blond satan” which is at odds with Humphrey Bogart’s dark, ratty appearance.
As for the story itself, Miss Wonderly visits the San Francisco office of a pair of private detectives with a problem which Spade summarises for his partner, Miles Archer, as:
“Miss Wonderly’s sister ran away from New York with a fellow named Floyd Thursby. They’re here. Miss Wonderly has seen Thursby and has a date with him tonight. Maybe he’ll bring the sister with him. The chances are he won’t. Miss Wonderly wants us to find the sister and get her away from him and back home.”
Archer volunteers to be the one to follow Thursby from the rendezvous to locate the missing sister but what should have been a simple case turns sour when he is shot dead and Spade finds himself mixed up with various criminals all trying to get their hands on the immensely valuable black Maltese Falcon statuette and he has to deal with them and keep on the right side of the law who aren’t convinced that he hasn’t committed at least one murder himself.
Spade is included within the 100 Greatest Literary Detectives although it his secretary who does the best piece of deduction in the book and I think he only gets in because of the iconic film. It would make more sense to include Hammett’s nameless Continental Op who appeared in many short stories and two novels and does more detecting: “Red Harvest” contains a fantastic verbal clue and “The Dain Curse” has more of a puzzle plot.
The book poses a few questions from the start which are never answered: why is Archer the junior partner though he is the older man (Spade quite ruthlessly has the “Spade and Archer” immediately removed from the door and replaced with “Samuel Spade”)? What led to the affair between Spade and Archer’s wife? These may (I’ve not read it) be answered by Joe Gores’ licensed 2009 prequel “Spade and Archer”.