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A Legendary Novel
on 3 July 2004
Although several of his novels have considerable merit, Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) will be best remembered for a single work: THE MALTESE FALCON.
Perhaps the single most extraordinary thing about the novel is its radical departure from the norm. In the 1920s and early 1930s, detective novels were not really considered "literary;" they were light entertainment, and they generally came in two varieties: pure pulp, which was more akin to action-adventure, and "the master detective" as created by such authors as Agatha Christie. In one fell swoop, however, Hammett not only fused these two ideas but also endowed his novel with tremendous literary style--more than enough to catch the eye of "serious" critics and more than enough to stand the test of time.
THE MALTESE FALCON is not a long novel, but Hammett packs a lot into it. The plot, which generally concerns the theft of a priceless, jewel-encrusted statue, walks a fine line between pulp mythology and modern pragmatism, never veering too far in either direction to seem impossible; the prose is lean and clean and packed with detail conveyed both simply and sharply; the characters stand out in a sort of high relief on the page. It is all memorable stuff.
It is difficult to discuss THE MALTESE FALCON without reference to the famous 1941 film version starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor. The film has been both a blessing and a curse, so famous that it has drawn thousands of readers to the novel, but so widely seen that it can become difficult to read the novel without seeing it through the lens of the film. But while the film presents the plot and much of Hammett's dialogue intact, readers will find the novel has somewhat different strengths--not the least of which is Hammett's prose itself. An essential of 20th Century American literature; strongly recommended.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer