Look at this dingus! It’s our discussion of The Maltese Falcon, perhaps the most well known book in all of crime fiction.
We discuss the lost Hammett tale “The Glass That Laughed,” do a featured review of the excellent book “North and Central” by Bob Hartley and we dive deep into the falcon while discussing the book, ’80’s cartoons, Communist presses, and gunsels.
The Point Blank Review of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon – In the second episode of Point Blank we spent time with Dashiell Hammett’s first novel, Red Harvest. Today, we return to the godfather of hardboiled crime fiction with his best known work, The Maltese Falcon.
This is our twelfth episode and the last in the “classics” phase of this podcast. From here on out, we will feature a greater variety of hardboiled, noir and detective works from contemporary, international, and lesser known authors, in addition to reviewing a classic (of which there are countless examples) every few episodes or so. We wanted to end this 12 episode cycle with an iconic hardboiled text, and it doesn’t get more iconic than this.
Published in 1929, The Maltese Falcon is the first shining example of the hardboiled private eye detective story. John Daly, Race Williams, and the Continental Op, came first, but in The Maltese Falcon, Hammett introduces Sam Spade — the template for all future complicated, hardboiled detectives who work alone and operate by their own moral code. Without Sam Spade there would likely be no, Philip Marlowe, no Lew Archer, no Spenser.
The story takes place in San Francisco at the tail-end of the roaring twenties. Enter Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the archetype for femme fatales everywhere. But we don’t know that yet. She steps into the office of Archer & Spade. She introduces herself as Miss Wonderley, and seeks help from the detectives. She wants them to track a fellow named Thursby. Archer agrees to take the first shift of snooping and that night is found dead in an alley. Who killed him, and why?
Later, Thursby is also found dead. We learn soon enough that Brigid O’Shaughnessy is after a mysterious foot-high statuette called the Maltese Falcon. It’s worth a hell of a lot of dough and there are a number of folks interesting in obtaining it, including Joel Cairo and Casper Gutman. Gutman arrives from NY with his entourage, including his gunman Wilmer Cook. O’Shaughnessy seeks protection from Spade, and he obliges, though he doesn’t fully trust her. He doesn’t trust anybody, except for maybe Effie, his loyal secretary and the only woman in the novel he does not sleep with. Spade meets first with Cairo, an effeminate Greek man whom he strong-arms more than once, but Cairo reveals little. Two cops come by and one doesn’t like Spade. They think he might have something to do with the murder of his partner.
For one, Spade was sleeping with Archer’s wife. Spade puts them off, but they’ll be back. Later he meets with Gutman, who tell Spade about the Falcon’s glorious history, while simultaneously drugging Spade’s drink. Spade passes out. Later, a man stumbles into Spade’s office and hands him a package then dies. The man is Captain Jacobi, who had just piloted a boat from Hong Kong. Spade opens the package and finds the Maltese Falcon. He locks it up for safe keeping.
Meanwhile, O’Shaughnessy is supposed to go into hiding at Effie’s but she disappears. After a search, Spade finds her outside his apartment. Inside the apartment are the three bads — Cairo, Gutman, and Cook. They know Spade has the Falcon. With the cops breathing down his neck, Spade admits that they need a fall guy. If he lets the bads have the Falcon, he will be brought in for the murder of Archer. Gutman agrees to give up his boy Wilmer, but Wilmer escapes.
Well, it turns out the Falcon is a fake. The business transaction doesn’t happen. Cairo and Gutman leave. Spade calls the cops and that go after Gutman, who is found dead, shot by the betrayed Wilmer. What about that fall guy? Sam Spade deduces that Brigid O’Shaughnessy murdered Miles Archer. It is clear that this is a struggle for him, as he has feelings for her. She confesses, then pleads with him to let her go. He gives a host of reasons why he cannot. The first is: “When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him,” adding later, “I’ve no reason in God’s world to think I can trust you and if I did this and got away with it you’d have something on me that you could use whenever you happened to want to.”
Four and a half Kill Shots. This is a classic work and arguably better written than Chandler’s The Big Sleep. There is something about Spade that I don’t like — perhaps the fact that we don’t know what he’s thinking — but I find him less relatable than Chandler’s Marlowe.
Featured Review: Bob Harley’s North and Central – A featured review is a book we received from a publisher or author for review considerations. This doesn’t mean we are obligated to like or review everything we get. But if we do like or love a book, we will review it. In this case, be both loved Hartley’s gritty North and Central, and we were compelled to share it with you. So, if any of you are publishers or authors who want to see their work considered for review on Point Blank, send us a note at pointblanknoir(at)gmail.com.
North and Central was published by Tortoise Books in 2017. This gritty crime novel, Hartley’s second, is set in working class Chicago in the late-1970s. This is an era before Mike Ditka and the Bears winning their first and only Super Bowl. Before Michael Jordan and the Bulls. Before Millennium Park and the iconic Bean sculpture. Before bike-friendly Mayor Daley Junior and Obama and Rahm. This was the end of an era of manufacturing and industry, and in this novel, one of the major employers, Zenith, is about to go under. The main character is Andy, a bar owner with a terminal illness. He is surrounded by a motley crue of drunks, miscreants, ex-drug addict younger brothers of ex-girlfriends, old friends, crooked cops, old friends who are crooked cops. Stealing televisions out the back of the Zenith plant and selling them on the black market. Also, Andy is cheating on his best friend cop’s wife. This is a hit for me.
Books featured in 5 Round Burst:
Bangkok 8: A Royal Thai Detective Novel by John Burdett – The book I read for this episode is Bangkok 8 by John Burdett, a nonpracticing lawyer turned writer, and the book was published by Vintage Books in 2003. Bangkok 8 is the first in a series of novels set in Thailand and featuring Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep — a devout Buddhist — as he unravels some complex cases that are are very international in scope. In the case of this book, the crime is murder by snakes, and the victim is a very tall African-American man with ties to the US Military. Why was he killed, and by whom? Over the course of 320 pages, Burdett takes us deep into the seedy Bangkok underworld of sex tourism, black market gem dealing, meth peddling, and cops on the take. I enjoyed the setting — Burdett is very good at bringing Thailand’s gritty streets to life. I was concerned about Burdett — an Anglo ex-lawyer — being the best tour guide for Thailand, but I admit that, at least to this non-Thai white guy — the Thai characters, of which we have many — are not presented as caricatures; they are well-developed and complex human beings. The same can’t be said for some of the US intelligence operators, however. The main problem I had with this book is that Burdett left little to the imagination. Maybe it’s his lawyer past, or his desire to prove his commitment to capturing an authentic Thailand, but everything was described in such detail, every conversation so meticululously rendered — that I was left yearning for less. The best crime writing, to me, follows the Hammett style of saying only what needs to be said and letting the reader do the rest. That said, this was the first book in Burdett’s Thailand series so here’s to hoping that in subsequent novels, he doesn’t let words get in the way of a good story. All in all, this is a hit, but not a deadly one. Call it a wingshot.
“A Negro and an Ofay” by Danny Gardner
“The Long-Legged Fly” by James Sallis
“Right As Rain: A Derek Strange Novel” by George Pelecanos
“Adolfo Kaminsky: A Forger’s Life” by Sarah Kaminsky
“Hammett and the Hardboiled Sentimental” by Leonard Cassuto in Hard-Boiled Sentimentality: The Secret History of American Crime Stories, Columbia Univ. Press.