The Maltese Falcon ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Maltese Falcon ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

In 1930 San Francisco—that city of hills and fog by the bay—Brigid O’Shaughnessy (if that’s really her name) believes she is in danger and goes to detective Samuel L. Spade to protect her. She’s young and attractive, as you might expect, and Sam Spade knows his way around with the dames. She tells him a story that’s all lies, but it doesn’t matter very much to Sam because she pays him well and he’d like to get to know her better, if you know what I mean.

The truth is, as Sam Spade learns later, the lovely Miss O’Shaughnessy has fallen in with a band of cutthroats and thieves, and she might be the worst of the lot. (“I’ve been bad, Sam,” she says. “Worse than you know.”) Among those posing a threat to her, we have Casper Gutman, the genial fat man who is so corpulent he seems to be made of bubbles strung together. Then there’s Joel Cairo, an effeminate “Levantine” (a person from the area of Turkey or Egypt) who is sweet on Casper Gutman’s gun-wielding psycho named Wilmer.

Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Casper Gutman, and Joel Cairo all want the Maltese Falcon so badly they will kill for it, or do whatever it takes to possess it. Just what is the Maltese Falcon? It’s a foot-high statuette that has been kicking around since the sixteenth century. It’s laden with precious stones, incalculably valuable, and has been covered over with a thick layer of black varnish to disguise what it really is from those who covet it. The falcon was originally intended, all those centuries ago, as a tribute to the King of Spain from a wealthy order of knights, but the King of Spain never received it, and it has subsequently been bandied about from owner to owner in all that time.

So, Sam Spade the detective is drawn into this knotted web of intrigue because Casper Gutman promises him a wad of money if he can deliver the falcon into his (Gutman’s) hands, but also because Brigid O’Shaughnessy is such a tasty dish of femaleness. Has Spade taken on more than he can handle in dealing with these desperate characters? Will he get the money promised him? Will he get the girl? Will the desperate characters get what they want and play nice and go away when it’s all over? Don’t count on it.

Dashielle Hammett, American novelist, lived from 1894 to 1961. The Maltese Falcon is his most famous and best-known work. It is the detective story that has served as the model for detective stories ever since it was first published in 1930. It is so highly regarded  that it’s number 56 on the Modern Library’s list of the Hundred Greatest Books in English of the Twentieth Century. The 1941 movie version, with Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, is a perfect example of how a movie should be made from a book. Sydney Greenstreet as Casper Gutman is cinematic perfection, along with bug-eyed Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo. They’ll kill you if you keep them from getting what they want or, at the very least, slip you a mickey, from which you’ll wake up on the floor in twelve hours or so.

Copyright 2020 by Allen Kopp