‘The Maltese Falcon’ by Dashiell Hammett
And that’s the genius of The Maltese Falcon—it isn’t rife with cliche, it’s the progenitor of each and every crime and noir cliche you’ve pretty much ever encountered. As such, it benefits tremendously from knowing that it came first. Without that knowledge, you’re left a little confused and, if you’re not a crime novel person, slightly peeved that you bothered to read it at all.
I was just such a person. I’m a big fan of mysteries, but not so keen on the hard-boiled noir detective vein of that genre. It’s just a bit too much rolling your own cigarettes to smoke constantly, calling every women you encounter a dame, and bribing everyone from hotel staffers to law enforcement officials to gangster cronies. Oh, and trailing people. Lots of trailing people. Forgive me if I’m not on the edge of my seat.
That said, if you are into detective fiction, this is the alpha! The Maltese Falcon is where it all began, so it makes good sense to start here to gain an appreciation for all the decades of fedoras, cigarettes, and poor lighting that followed. Falcon is twisty, but in a more “my god, what a sudden betrayal!” way than any sort of Holmesian “I planned this twist all along because I’m a genius!” style. And the mystery at the heart of the plot is almost too mysterious, with even the identities of main players obscured for almost the entire book. In fact, most of the book is spent following our hero around while he exchanges witty and/or angry banter with various people who may or may not be involved and then either beats them up and deigns to leave them alone.
Fortunately for me, Falcon is a short book. All the machismo and the lack of meaningful clues became rather tiresome well before the end, but, because it’s such a short read, I was able to persevere to the big reveal. (Spolier-alert: it involved lots of guns, sudden betrayal, and crying women.)
Falcon has been selected as one of the NEA’s The Big Read books (and Nantucket’s local version, One Book One Island, which is how I came upon a copy), so it’s entirely possible it will come to your own community someday soon. The NEA’s website would like me to believe that a first reading is too entertaining for you to notice how truly amazing the book is. This may well be, but I won’t be going back for a second read. I’m not even sure I can recommend this book, except to real noir fans.