Attempting to Read the Maltese Falcon

Dashiell Hammett, Kindle Paperwhite, Sam Spade, The Maltese Falcon, Uncategorized
I’m in the middle of reading The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett. Well actually, according to my newly-acquired Kindle Paperwhite, I’m 19% through reading it. I happen to be a desperately slow reader compared to many of the people that I know, so this time next week I may have plowed through another few virtual pages and, who knows, may be proudly boasting a massive 20%. In any case, it’s a fairly absorbing story featuring the private detective Sam Spade. So far, there have been two murders, both of which take place off-scene, as it were. I was expecting some graphic description of the shootings to back up Hammett’s reputation of being the progenitor of the hard-boiled detective story. So the fact that you only hear about them when Spade is called in the middle of the night by a police detective, was rather disappointing. Not so much hard boiled as over easy.
I suppose most writers have their blind spots, aspects of writing that they’re just not very good at and Hammett doesn’t disappoint. His lack of expertise lies in the area of description. Here’s an example right from the beginning of chapter 1:
“Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down— from high flat temples— in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.”
Yes, I’m sure the effect Hammett is trying to create was that of a blond satan, but he ends up describing what appears to be some sort of aardvark.
The next chapter gives us further intriguing description of Spade to work with:
“The smooth thickness of his arms, legs, and body, the sag of his big rounded shoulders, made his body like a bear’s. It was like a shaved bear’s: his chest was hairless. His skin was childishly soft and pink.”
A shaved bear? You don’t see many of those nowadays do you. But, oh well, I can just about imagine that. But the fact that his skin is childishly soft and pink makes me think, not of some ravening beast of the forest roaring in the night, but of a jelly donut.
Hammett also has difficult in describing people’s facial expressions. Here’s an quick gist from later on in the book:
“Spade stopped her with a palm-up motion of one hand. The upper part of his face frowned. The lower part smiled.”
Quite a trick to pull off. I’ve seen many constipation sufferers with much the same expression.
Then there are the curious animal noises that Spade makes:
“He made a growling animal noise in his throat and went to the table for his hat. “You won’t,” she begged in a small choked voice, not looking up, “go to the police?” “Go to them!” he exclaimed, his voice loud with rage. […] Spade made the growling animal noise in his throat again and sat down on the settee. “How much money have you got?” he asked.
I’m not sure what kind of noise this growling thing is. Do bears make them in weak protest at having to be shaved just for the delectation of the reading public? Also, Hammett has to tell us that “He made a growling animal noise in his throat.” Where else, I wonder can you make growling animal noises from? Who knows? Perhaps that’s one of Spade’s party tricks, making animal noises from different parts of his anatomy.
All these little idiosyncrasies so far haven’t put me off finishing the book. In fact they perform the function of an entertaining sideshow to the main plot, which, so far is taking its own sweet time about unraveling. After all, if the book’s called The Maltese Falcon, you might expect that after nearly 20% of the book the actual falcon would have turned up by now. Am I too impatient? Probably. But remember that I read about as slowly as a shortsighted kindergartener in the dark.
Never mind. I shall take a deep breath, shrug my big, rounded, bearlike shoulders, making disconsolate animal growling noises in my throat, and soldier on.


Hero or Antihero

Black Mask, brighten rock, Carroll John Daly, Dashiell Hammett, Detective Fiction Weekly, Dime Detective, graham greene, Raymond Chandler, the heart of the matter, the power and the glory, Uncategorized
Most modern novel writers have a balancing act to perform when they sit down to write a book. The act involves the attributes of the main character in the book. If they make the leading man or woman too perfect, the reader will lose interest in them and won’t really care that much what happens to them. They will also have a titanic struggle trying to make that character believable and can run the considerable risk of creating a flat one- or two-dimensional character who acts predictably.
No, what the author should be attempting to build is a character who has flaws, who has a past, and has some secret hidden away which eventually compromises the choices he or she makes at key points in the book. But there are also sizable risks in portraying a flawed character, too. If, for example the main character has too many flaws – as might be the case with an anti-hero – then the reader might find that person morally repugnant. If there are too many flaws that don’t accord with the readers world-view, or that trample all over the reader’s staunchly held beliefs, then the reader may find that there is no one in the book to root for, or that they want the character to be ultimately vanquished by the mounting obstacles that are set against them.
Of course, a writer might quite like the idea of assaulting the sentiments of the reader with characters that are ultimately too repulsive to be even remotely attractive. After all, no too readers are the same and what might be abhorrent to one might be attractive to someone else. The question is: are there enough readers who like the main character enough to still root for him or her despite their glaring shortcomings?
Graham Greene trod a very precarious path with some of his main characters, for example the outlaw whisky priest who fathers a child in The Power and the Glory, and the ruthless teenage sociopath and up-and-coming gangster Pinkie Brown, in Brighton Rock and the adulterer, Scobie, in The Heart of the Matter. But then, Greene’s books were literary novels of a sort, as well as being commercially popular potboilers. So to that extent he had more latitude because of the quality of his writing. And in fact all of these characters reach some sort of redemption in the end, albeit veiled and concealed by their troubling character flaws. So in a sense Greene more or less got away with creating main characters who were in varying degrees detestable.
Modern readers are now generally averse to the kind of moral uplift that characterized British novels of the late-19th / early-20th century. Later on and an ocean away, in the United States, Carroll John Daly, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler pioneered their signature hardboiled style of writing, initially in magazines like the Black Mask, Dime Detective and Detective Fiction Weekly, but thereafter in novels which had their heyday from the 1930s to the 1950s. In these stories the protagonist is usually more or less a high-functioning alcoholic, something of a womanizer and is no stranger to roughhousing. Plenty of flaws were on display but they never went so far as to alienate the reader too much. There was enough titillation, violence and whiskey-swilling to qualify them for peripheral anti-hero status, but not so much that the reader couldn’t root for the leading man’s eventual success – after all magazines and books had to be sold. From then on, most successful heroes and heroines had to have shady pasts or compromising character traits, in order to be “real.”
Presenting a flawed character who is still attractive is, of course, a bit of a tightrope walk but one that must be attempted by anyone who has serious intentions of producing a successful novel. The good news is that a novelist has much more chance of portraying a well-rounded character by making him or her flawed. And that in itself makes the book a whole lot more enjoyable to read, which in turn means better reviews and ultimately more sales.