From: James R Winter ( winter_writes@earthlink.net)
Date: 27 Nov 2004

OK, I'm crossposting. But since this will cause sufficient trouble on both Rara and DT, I think it's worth amusing or offending everyone on both lists. (Some of you will be amused or offended twice.)

I read THE MALTESE FALCON this week, considered the granddaddy of the PI novel. We all know the story. We've all seen the movie. (And if you haven't, stop right now. Go rent the DVD and watch it. Then come back and read on.) I have to say it's right up there with GATSBY in terms of influence and the snapshot it gives of its time.

Was that pretentious? Hardly. Every detective novel since takes its cues from TMF. Last year's SMP/PWA winner, TONIGHT I SAID GOODBYE, read quite a bit like a present-day sequel to TMF, except that Perry has a partner in Pritchard he actually likes.

If a PI story is good, it learns its lessons from THE MALTESE FALCON and whatever other influential PI novel you can probably add on top of that. If it's bad, 9 times out of 10, it's ripping off TMF, THE BIG SLEEP, or Mickey Spillane. (Or more recently, Robert Parker, who essentially reinvented the wheel at a time it needed serious reinvention.) But read THE MALTESE FALCON.

Every cliche you can think of in later novels is in TMF, but they don't seem at all like cliches. They feel like a function of the story. Spade is not a tarnished knight. He's really a sleazewad who develops a conscience as time goes by. He sleeps with his partner's wife even as he ponders getting rid of Miles Archer. Yet, despite his cold handling of the event, Archer's death eats at him, enough for him to throw Brigid O'Shaughnessy to the wolves when the time comes. Certainly, he has no use for Joel Cairo or Wilmer Cook.

Effie Perrine, probably one of this story's most underrated characters, is a lot smarter and ballsier than the couple dozen girl Fridays that have popped up in movies later. Were this written in the last 15 years, Effie would have been a partner in the agency or have taken on some of the legwork. Alas, this is 1930, so Hammett does what he can with her.

The thing that struck me most about THE MALTESE FALCON, clearly the best of the Hammett novels, is that it wasn't really a PI story as we've come to think of it. It's a story about a private investigator. Only a PI (or a lawyer or an insurance investigator. See THRILLING DETECTIVE for the infinite number of ways one can play this role.) could get into this kind of trouble and get out of it the way Spade does.

Jim Winter

http://www.jamesrwinter.com http://jamesrwinter.blogspot.com winter-newsletter-subscribe@yahoogroups.com

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