A beautiful woman asks private eye Sam Spade for his help. Spade doesn’t believe her story, and when his partner gets murdered it soon becomes clear that he’s right. As he digs deeper, he realises everyone is chasing the enigmatic falcon and is willing to kill for it. He also realises there is no-one he can trust – not the unctuous Fat Man, not the shrill Joel Cairo, not the suspicious police, and especially not the bewitching Brigid O’Shaughnessy. The Maltese Falcon – dry, uncluttered, witty and darkly unsentimental – is the finest book of its kind ever written. Find out more about The Maltese Falcon below.
6 CDs | Running Time: 7h 54m | ISBN: 978-184-379-480-6 | Cat. no.: NA0042 | RRP: £24.99RRP:£24.99 GBPSRP: US $ 41.98RRP:£24.99 GBP
Reader Eric Meyers shares his thoughts on The Maltese Falcon:
Download link: The Maltese Falcon Interview (MP3, 4 min., 1.6 MB)
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ABOUT The Maltese Falcon
Dashiell Hammett created a style that has become the template of its genre to an extent hardly matched by any other writer. It is Sam Spade who comes to mind when imagining a private detective, with his dry, darkly witty and unsentimental rejoinders in conversation (such as his response when a beautiful woman offers him her body: ‘I’ll think it over’); and a world of greedy, unscrupulous crooks, matched by a tenebrous urban atmosphere, is part of the code, too. Hammett did not create all these elements, but he took what could easily have become merely pulp-fiction conventions and made them into novels – and one novel in particular: The Maltese Falcon.
Among the reasons why he could give these conventions depth and convincing morality was that he knew what he was talking about. Hammett had actually worked as a private detective, had seen large-scale corruption at first hand, understood hard drinking, womanising and extra-marital affairs; but he was also faithful and principled. The world he created is believable because it was real.
He was born Samuel Dashiell Hammett in Maryland and grew up in Philadelphia and Baltimore. His formal education finished in his early teens, when he took on the usual roster of short-term jobs to help the family’s finances before joining the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. He worked with them until 1922 (with a year off to serve in the First World War), and naturally there were experiences that made their way into his fiction. He seems to have been good at the job, on one occasion being so discreet a tail that when the man he was following got lost he asked Hammett for directions. It is not clear what his actual case-load involved, and it seems certain that he embellished the details of his career to make for better stories. But they did not need much embellishment.
In post-War America he was openly sympathetic to Communist causes and dedicated much time and effort to them
Pinkerton’s was a huge network operating throughout the USA, but it was not merely involved in tracking down errant spouses or taking fugitive criminals to court. Industrialists used the services of Pinkerton’s to observe, report on, infiltrate and disrupt the activities of unions, and sometimes to go well beyond that and actively break strikes. And sometimes to go well beyond that: Hammett claimed he was personally approached and offered money to kill one of the more influential unionists of the time, Frank Little. Hammett refused, but even without his involvement the suspicion remains that Pinkerton’s was behind Little’s death. Little was beaten, abducted, dragged behind a car and lynched in August 1917, with no significant attempt made by the police to find the perpetrators. Whatever the extent of Hammett’s personal involvement, the fact that a national organisation could be expected to undertake – and perhaps did undertake – such an action is at the very least an insight into a murky world that was known to Hammett and must have contributed to his growing political radicalism.
He joined the Army in 1917, but caught the Spanish flu and then tuberculosis, several effects of which lasted the rest of his life. One was the ill-health that never really left him; the other was his nurse, Josephine Dolan, whom he married and by whom he had two daughters. The family moved to San Francisco and while employed in writing advertising copy (one of the many jobs he had done before the War) he began to write short fiction for magazines. These stories featured a detective, one based on his mentor at Pinkerton’s, James Wright, and became popular. But his personal life was deteriorating. Health authorities told his wife that she and her children should not live in the same house as the tubercular Hammett, so they moved out; and despite regular visits, the marriage failed. Hammett continued to support his children, and although he sought refuge from the end of the marriage in the bottle, he focussed on writing as well. He had already established something of a name for himself in the pulp magazine world when in 1929 he published his first novel, Red Harvest, followed six months later by The Dain Curse. Less than a year after that came The Maltese Falcon.
What sets Hammett’s work apart is not merely the darkly realistic underworld he presents, but the complex moral standing of the hero. His detectives work in a believably violent and self-serving world. The criminals mean what they say, for all their exotic appearance. Trust is a commodity no-one can trade in. Meanwhile, Spade is no-one’s knight on a white charger (affairs, casual sex, drink, physical brutality), yet he is the moral centre of the story, whose opaque code of honour manages to be part cynicism, part ideology – and entirely convincing. This is not a literary post-hoc rationalisation. Hammett takes the time to insert discussions and conversations that examine Sam Spade’s underlying philosophy. These are never straightforward, either; and even when Spade is explicit, the conventions of the world in which he is operating mean we have to treat what he says with an element of suspicion. The omniscient narrator never tells us anything about the interior lives of the protagonists: it’s all in the dialogue, and this is another factor of Hammett’s books that makes them punchier and more satisfying.
But there weren’t to be many more of them. Despite success, more short stories, film offers and associated piece-work, two more novels, some radio work and a comic book, Hammett’s literary life was essentially over by 1934. He had by this time met Lillian Hellman, the left-leaning writer and critic. They were both already married when they met and, although both subsequently divorced, they never married each other; but they were together for the rest of Hammett’s life. By the outbreak of the Second World War Hammett was as involved in leftwing causes as his de facto wife, but he decided to join up again (despite his appalling health record and the fact that he was 48) and spent three years living and editing newspapers for the troops on the remote and freezing Aleutian Islands.
In post-War America he was openly sympathetic to Communist causes and dedicated much time and effort to them, becoming a prominent member of the Civil Rights Congress, a group that was placed on the official list of subversive organisations. But when he was called to give evidence either about the Congress, or the works and beliefs of friends or colleagues, he simply refused. He eventually served five months in jail and was blacklisted as a result. This intriguing dichotomy – a man who had served in two world wars, yet was a target for official sanctions – meant that when he died in 1961, J. Edgar Hoover, the then FBI director, objected to a Commie such as Hammett having a place in the National Cemetery in Arlington. Hoover lost the argument. But as Hammett would have understood only too well, choosing your heroes is never straightforward.
Notes by Roy McMillan
Sam Spade, the hard-boiled detective, must deal with several shady characters, all of whom would (and do) kill for the statue of the Maltese Falcon in this classic mystery by Dashiell Hammett the creator of the “hard-boiled” detective novel. The statue has a very long history and under a black coating is rumored to be encrusted with priceless jewels. Spade is cool and never shows much emotion, but his brain works overtime to figure out which are the bad guys and gals. Since his character is forever linked with Humphrey Bogart in the film version, it takes a special reader to resist the temptation to imitate Bogart. However Eric Meyers manages to create his own Sam Spade and also does a good job voicing the remaining characters. Meyers began his career working on radio. He has since appeared in many films as well as providing narration in documentaries for National Geographic, The History Channel, The Discovery Channel amongst others. He is a well-known character actor and voice artist. His experiences stand him in good stead here; the females are particularly well-drawn and when they cry it sounds absolutely true. Not for everyone, it is a bit dated, but for those who recall the movie with nostalgia, this will have appeal.
Sue Rosenzweig, Sound Commentary
Naxos has released Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon as an audiobook. Eric Meyers does a great reading of the novel. My greatest fear was that it might bring to mind the 1941 movie with Humphrey Bogart, and Meyers avoids any comparison. This is a highly enjoyable listening experience.
Alide Kohlhaas, Seniors Review