Context: Was reading this on the balcony and a huge moth had decided to take up residence on our tablecloth.
As far as US detective novels that I’ve read so far go, this is by far the most all-rounded novel of its genre. Two things in particular made it stand out for me: the style of writing and the quality of the characters that Hammett created.
Sam Spade, the detective this centres around, is both sharply drawn and yet inscrutable. You never get to discover what his motivations are for the way that he interacts with everyone else. This gives him the air of the professional, of somehow existing on a plane of detection that you couldn’t possibly elevate yourself to. At the same time, you know that, try as they might, no criminal or bungling member of San Francisco’s police force is going to be able to deter him.
The story centres around a bejewelled falcon that has slipped through everyone’s fingers in the hundreds of years since it was made by a religious order for the king of Spain as tribute for the possession of Malta. Where it is now and how to get hold of it is what keeps everyone on their toes from beginning to end.
With Spade though, you are drawn slowly into this plot from an outsider’s view of sheer ignorance. This is done very carefully in minute steps so that it’s not until about 3/4 of the way through the book that you realise what all the fuss is about. At that point, you are mesmerised by the characters you’ve come to know, the creepy Cairo in particular.
And again, as with The Thin Man, I appreciated the detailed descriptions of people that Hammett puts in. In the midst of a conversation, he’ll casually mention that the character scratches their chin or spits out a piece of tobacco from their cigarette. These details do nothing for the storyline but they constantly evoke the mind of the detective who watches and takes note of every character’s slightest action.
All the while you’re wondering what Spade will make of it all: will he get the falcon for himself, will he get the girl, how will he solve the crime? The last 1/4 of the book is set in Spade’s flat where the tension mounts as Spade plays one villain off another. And the book ends with you wondering what happens next thus extending the tension beyond the end of the novel. In terms of its genre, this novel defines so much that later novels borrow. It’s a classic.