The Maltese Falcon was published in 1930, first in The Black Mask magazine and later in book form, but it still holds up fairly well for the contemporary reader. The true mystery in the book is not what or where the Falcon is; the mystery is Sam Spade, its principal character. What kind of man is he? Is he as amoral as he would lead his acquaintances to believe? Does he follow some personal code of honor? Hammett never lets the reader into Sam’s head, so not until the end do we know what Sam is thinking or why he decides to join the chase for the “black bird.”
One of the problems with reading The Maltese Falcon today is how familiar it seems. Many of us have seen John Huston’s classic film version of the novel, so it difficult not to hear Humphrey Bogart or Peter Lorre or Sidney Greenstreet speaking the dialogue as one reads. (Huston used most of Hammett’s dialogue verbatim.) But more than that, so many of the private eye novels that came after the Falcon were influenced by it, so it seems less special to us than it did to its original audience. Hammett’s lean prose and use of slang, in fact, helped initiate the “hard-boiled” detective genre.
The depiction of women in the book may also cause some readers to groan. There are three major female characters; Brigid, the femme fatale who gets Spade involved in the case: Effie, the Girl Friday who helps and encourages Spade; and Iva, the unfaithful wife of Spade’s partner. Spade doesn’t treat any of them very well; it’s likely that his actions toward the likeable Effie would today be grounds for a sexual harassment suit. But again, one has to keep a historical perspective: Not till the 1980s would writers like Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky turn the hard-boiled version of women on its head.
Nevertheless, Sam Spade and company lead us on a merry chase as they bargain and scheme (and murder) to get their hands on the priceless treasure that is the Maltese Falcon. And this reader still enjoys that chase.