Erik Larson on ‘The Maltese Falcon’: Best. Novel. Ever?

The Wall Street Journal’s Book Club has a real doozy this week: hardboiled author Eric Larson on the father of hardboiled fiction, Dashiell Hammett.

‘One of the Best Novels, Period’

There was a time when Erik Larson could recite from memory an entire speech from “The Maltese Falcon”—the final monologue in which hard-boiled detective Sam Spade explains the code by which he lives. The speech is the book’s final reveal, unveiling the moral compass of a character whose journey has left the reader dizzy with false clues and competing motives.

Mr. Larson’s best-selling books include the nonfiction thriller AR-AJ042_BOOKCL_12S_20150303164318“The Devil in the White City,” about a serial killer at the Chicago World’s Fair on the eve of the 20th century. When The Wall Street Journal asked him to select a title for the WSJ Book Club, he turned, once again, to “The Maltese Falcon,” Dashiell Hammett’s noir classic, which inspired the 1941 Humphrey Bogart film.

“It is the ultimate detective novel, and frankly not just detective novel,” Mr. Larson said. “I think it’s one of the best novels, period… Here’s this writer, here’s Hammett, who in 217 pages creates this world with four of the absolutely most vivid characters that literature, I think, has ever come up with.”

Wow. And the hardworking staff thought we loved the hard-boiled classic, which we’ve read at least three times since we first encountered it 40 years ago. Hammett’s brilliant gift for dialogue has stuck with us all the while.

Representative samples (via Goodreads):

Sam Spade to Brigid O’Shaughnessy: “You’ve got to convince me that you know what it’s all about, that you’re not simply fiddling around by guess and by God, hoping it’ll come out all right somehow in the end.”

Spade to Wilmer the Gunsel: “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.”

Joel Cairo: “You always have a very smooth explanation ready.”
Sam Spade: “What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?”

But Hammett’s achievement goes well beyond that, according to Larson. “He created a genre—the whole school of hard-boiled detective novels. And that in turn led to cinema noir. It’s a tremendous accomplishment.”

Ah, yes – the film version of The Maltese Falcon.

Larson:

The movie is one of those rare films that absolutely captured the underlying novel. To bring those characters to life, to capture them was really a tough job. I think John Huston, who was the director, and also wrote the screenplay, did an absolutely brilliant job. Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade? Perfect. Broke the mold. Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo? Again, absolutely broke the mold. Sydney Greenstreet as Casper Gutman? No one will ever do that role better. John Huston actually took large portions of the book and just included that in the screenplay verbatim, including the final monologue.

Final monologue:

 

 

Love the elevator bars crossing Mary Astor’s face at the end.

WSJ Book Club coda:

We’ll be reading “The Maltese Falcon” over the next month, with weekly discussion questions on our blog, Speakeasy. Participate by visiting WSJ.com/bookclub, joining our Facebook page, or following on Twitter via #WSJbookclub. Mr. Larson, whose book, “Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania,” comes out next week, will answer readers’ questions in a live video chat at the end of March.

Sounds like fun. So, to recap:

The Maltese Falcon is the stuff that hard-boiled detective novels and cinema noir are made of.

Got that, angel?

P.S. The hardlyworking staff once wrote a college paper that posited Hammett as the hard-boiled Homer to Raymond Chandler’s Virgil. It got an A, but we were simply fiddling around by guess and by God.

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6 Responses to Erik Larson on ‘The Maltese Falcon’: Best. Novel. Ever?

  1. Bill says:

    Once again, I have to cite Raymond Chandler’s stunning essay, “The Simple Art of Murder”. In it, he praises “The Maltese Falcon” and Hammett. He points out how Hammett skillfully diverts the reader’s attention from the only “formal” mystery in the story, namely, who killed Spade’s partner, yet eventually connects it to the quest for the falcon. Chandler then contrasts “The Maltese Falcon” to another Hammett story, “The Glass Key”, where the formal “who did it” question is front-and-center the entire time, unlike how it is pushed aside and so almost forgotten by the reader in “The Maltese Falcon”– and notes how skillfully Hammet worked both detective-story approaches.

  2. Curmudgeon says:

    What? You didn’t think “Dreams of My Father” wasn’t the best piece of fiction ever written?

    Shame on you, John,

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