Hardboiled: The Maltese Falcon

Since our launch last month, we have shortchanged part of our mandate by not talking about hardboiled lit with the same enthusiasm we’ve shown other genres. As a corrective, I’ve provided below a reworked version of a review I put up last year on Goodreads of The Maltese Falcon.

I’ve chosen Dashiell Hammett as the first hardboiled author to highlight on Albino Books because he is one of the first true writers in that subgenre and because of his influence over an important subgenre of science fiction: cyberpunk.

There’s a lot of loose talk about the noir influence in cyberpunk, and the most common reference tends to be Raymond Chandler. No disrespect to the marvelous Chandler or his admirers, but I think Hammett is a clearer influence on cyberpunk and in particular the ground zero that is the William Gibson novel Neuromancer.

Hammett’s best work is clean, diamond-hard and unsentimental—the core of what it means to be hardboiled writer.

If you spliced together the DNA of Red Harvest, The Stars My Destination and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress* the resulting hybrid would be Neuromancer.

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Reading a book like The Maltese Falcon is a little challenging for me. I’ve seen the beloved third film version many times since I was a child—it was also the first movie I watched in the first film studies class I ever took—so my expectations going in were that I would find little in the way of fresh experience. There’s a distancing effect that happens to me where I compare what I’m reading to my recollections of a film adaptation. And those recollections aren’t always accurate, despite how many times I’ve seen the movie, so the distancing is multiplied while I simultaneously interrogate myself about my memories.

Look, I’m not going to argue with you that I’m not too introverted sometimes.

Roughly halfway through reading The Maltese Falcon though, I became fully engrossed and achieved the highly sought after Nirvana of total escapism. Mr. Hammett was that good.

From the first page, I was surprised by the differences from the 1941 film. In the book, Hammett describes his main character Sam Spade as looking like a tall “blonde Satan.” Like most people, when I hear the name Sam Spade, I think of Bogart, who was neither tall nor really devilish (at least in appearance), and certainly not blonde.

This was where I was still wrestling with my preconceptions. At about the point where Spade roughs up “the Levantine” Joe Cairo, I was fully immersed  in Hammett’s morally grey world of tough guys and femme fatales. I stopped seeing Peter Lorre and Bogart and started seeing the characters as Hammett described them.

Part of my ability to lose myself in the book is the slightly different tone it takes. Probably as a result of censorship at the time, Hammett’s novel seems harsher and darker than the movie. The book is not elaborately violent or sexy, but it definitely has more edge than the film. And Spade as a character displays an even more dubious morality than his film counterpart.

Do I need to recap the plot? It doesn’t differ that much from one of the most popular films of all time. Sam Spade, a detective, and assorted criminals including one legendary femme fatale scheme and swindle each other over a rare historical object from Malta.

Hammett gets into a surprising amount of detail about the history and provenance of his MacGuffin—I felt like I was watching a lost Indiana Jones movie. It’s a startling effective passage in the book and provides an interesting resonance to the proceedings that might otherwise be lacking if the characters were squabbling over more conventional spoils. It’s easier to imagine everyone becoming obsessed with the Maltese Falcon because Hammett provides it with more back-story than some of the main characters—which is not at all a criticism on my part.

But what’s really striking about the book, as opposed to the movie, is the ambiguity of Spade’s moral calculus. There’s some suggestion that Spade makes the decisions he makes in the course of the book because he believes in criminals being brought to justice, but it could just as easily be interpreted as Spade favouring that side of the game—just slightly. In fact, his calculated approach to life ends up alienating his loyal to a fault secretary Effie. She comes late to realize what the reader has a few scenes earlier: Spade is basically a bastard, who may or may not have some rudimentary motivations left related to issues of justice.

The Maltese Falcon, the book, expresses a deeply nihilistic worldview that the movie only hints at. The movie is unimpeachably a piece of classic film noir, but it only touched on the blackness of the novel—still a bracingly modern read, even over 80 years later.

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*I readily acknowledge the importance of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to the development of SF, but think it’s mostly a terribly written book with some great concepts littered throughout.

Science Fiction Book Meme

Who Goes There? John W. Campbell Jr

Who Goes There?, John W. Campbell, Jr., cover Malcolm Smith, Shasta, Chicago Illinois, 1951, 2nd Edition-2nd printing, movie tie-in with “The Thing from Another World

I couldn’t resist another little pre-launch appetizer. John DeNardo at SF Signal posted an excellent time-waster of a meme this past Sunday, which I am unable to pass up. My overlong answers to the original 17 questions follow below in italics.

1. My favorite alien invasion book or series is…?

I was going to pick The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, which is unquestionably great, but it really isn’t as interested in the alien threat described in the plot as it is the “what-if” psycho social ramifications of unending conflict over vast stretches of space-travel dilated time.

For that creepy, existential-crisis, fear-of-the-other that alien invasions stories largely represent, it’s still hard to top Who Goes There?, by John W Campbell Jr.

2. My favorite alternate history book or series is…?

The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson—steampunk before there was such a thing, now canonical.

3. My favorite cyberpunk book or series is…?

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Neuromancer: the perfect blend of fatalistic hardboiled noir and future shock.

4. My favorite Dystopian book or series is…?

There are a lot of great dystopian books, but 1984 is still the chilling pinnacle of this subgeneric hill. It even appeared on the bestseller lists again in the wake of recent privacy scandals. Orwell understood the inherent power of the perversion of language in service to control.

5. My favorite Golden-Age sf book or series is…?

I struggled with this one—More Than Human, Fahrenheit 451, The Foundation Trilogy—all remarkable books. But Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination sticks in my imagination more than any other book from its period. As William Gibson noted, Bruce Sterling called it “a seamless pop artifact”—it pulses with life and accomplishes more in fewer pages than most of a bookcase worth of sci fi “classics.”

6. My favorite hard sf book or series is…?

This question lets me sneak in Arthur C. Clarke’s magnificent Childhood’s End, which more properly should have been my response to the Golden-Age one above; in which case this space would go to Rendezvous with Rama. But no other work of so-called “hard” science fiction leaves me as simultaneously melancholy and hopeful as Childhood’s End.

7. My favorite military sf book or series is…?

Now I get to slip in The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, excellent.

8. My favorite near-future book or series is…?

Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge has it all: reverse-aging medical procedures, augmented reality, smart military tech—and a bone-chilling vision of libraries being devoured that still gives me nightmares…

9. My favorite post-apocalyptic book or series is…?

The Road by Cormac McCarthy. SF fans debate whether or not The Road represents a kind of literary-world dilettantism in the ghettos of genre, but no one who is a father can successfully refute this book’s power.

10. My favorite robot/android book or series is…?

My instinct is to go straight to I Robot, by Asimov—a juggernaut of the SF genre and influential even unto the real world of robotics—but I’m going to have to go with something of an oddball choice: Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks (R.I.P.). Look to Windward examines the possible emotional consequences for artificial intelligences involved in an interstellar war. Banks’ great conceit is of a civilization shepherded by “Minds,” artificial intelligences with all the possible quirks that come from being sapient. The Minds extend themselves into android avatars and there are also independent probe-style robots here and there, so it counts. Worth the price of admission for the list of names the Mind-driven space ships christen themselves: You May Not Be The Coolest Person Here, Hand Me The Gun And Ask Me Again, Nuisance Value, Experiencing A Significant Gravitas Shortfall etc.

“O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.”
—T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

11. My favorite space opera book or series is…?

Again, back to the inimitable Iain M. Banks and his Culture. Start with Consider Phlebas, but the crown jewel in the series is Use of Weapons—avoid spoilers like a drunken uncle at the family picnic.

12. My favorite steampunk book or series is…?

My first thought was the awe-inspiring Perido Street Station by China Miéville, but although it’s rife with proto-steampunk tropes, it’s gnarly worldbuilding more easily fits into a kind of weird-fantasy crossover category than steampunk per se. So I’m going to step sideways into comics and pick The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, by Alan Moore. Pure steampunk is, at it’s best, a reconfiguration of Victoriana, and no work does that more directly than League—Mina Harker, the Invisible Man, Mr Hyde, Dorian Grey, Captain Nemo, steam, gears, historical figures, the Nautilus, airships, Moriarty—it’s got it all and mashes it all together brilliantly.

13. My favorite superhero book or series is…?

This is perhaps my most obscure choice, but I’m going to say Slan by A E van Vogt. Slan’s prose is clunky and much of it has aged poorly, but there’s still something weirdly engaging about the book. Slan’s artificially evolved superhumans in hiding prefigures the X-Men to a startling degree. The murky morality of the two principle slans, the increasingly frenetic parallel narratives, and the still gripping action make it a surprisingly readable pulp curio.

I’ve interpreted this question to mean traditional prose novels, but if I had to go straight to the source, comics, then it’s The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, hands down—dark, gritty and all that revisionist stuff, sure, but ultimately still heroic. And about heroes you’ve known all your life, which notches it above the wonderful deconstruction that is Watchmen.

14. My favorite time travel book or series is…?

Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock. No one even tangentially exposed to a Judeo-Christian upbringing can deny the impact of Moorcock’s exploration of the psychology of faith. What would have been a clever think-piece in the hands of a lesser writer, is a gripping emotionally-charged fable in the hands of the master.

15. My favorite young adult sf book or series is…?

It’s tempting to stray into fantasy works here, particularly the incomparable Ursula K. LeGuin, but I’m going to stay in SF as the question implies and say Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi, which I actually enjoyed more than the adult-oriented Old Man’s War (still good, don’t get me wrong) in the same series. The perspective of a teenage girl on the events of a semi-traditional military science fiction story was really fresh and interesting.

16. My favorite zombie book or series is…?

I’m stretching it a bit here, but I’m going to say The Passage by Justin Cronin. Although technically about vampires, the images of hordes of uncommunicative monsters swarming out of the dark and wiping out most of humanity falls more easily into the zombie tradition. It’s also one of those books that creeps slowly into your consciousness and stays there until you have to finish it at two in the morning on a weeknight. A stealthy read that starts out feeling like a re-write of The Stand and gradually evolves into a weird hybrid of potboiler and properly literary experience—apocalyptic-ally elliptical.

17. The 3 books at the top of my sf/f/h to-be-read pile are…?

The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard, Broken Angels by Richard K. Morgan and another phonebook by Steven Erikson.

Feel free to reply in the comments below or to the original meme—or to debate the relative merits of my selections if you’re feeling argumentative.