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.

Precision of Naming: Science Fiction, SF or Sci-Fi?

“I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”
—Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

As critic and writer Damien Walter rightly notes in a post at The Guardian“If there’s one thing science fiction fans love, it’s an argument. And if there’s one argument they love more than all others, it’s the attempt to define what science fiction actually is, and what is or isn’t included in that definition.”

Mr. Walter provides a succinct and entertaining glossary of terms for the main genres of writing. I laughed out loud when I got to his definition of one of my preferred abbreviations, SF:

“Because no one knows what SF means, writers and fans are forever telling people it means ‘science fiction’ before correcting people when they say, ‘Oh, you mean sci-fi,’ which tends to annoy both parties.”

I grew up reading science fiction, or whatever, in the late 70s and early 80s—in the wake of Star Wars, sure—but also in the afterglow of the New Wave of late 60s early 70s SF. (I’ve obviously drifted into another annoying subgeneric term, but stay with me.) The New Wave was a movement characterized by rampant and occasionally ill-advised experimentation. The term “speculative fiction” arose out of that movement and is still a favourite of many good writers and critics; and is yet another entertaining entry in Mr. Walter’s glossary.

The New Wave writers—like Michael Moorcock, Harlan Ellison, J.G. Ballard, Ursula K. LeGuin—disdained the use of the term sci-fi because Forry‘s pet name cheerfully included all the b-movie cultural detritus from which they sought to distance their art.

And despite my love of b-movies and related schlock, I read so much Ellison et al as a young man that I’ve never been able to fully embrace the name sci-fi. Which is unfortunate, as sci-fi has stuck with the majority of the public at large. That I would choose to cling to an abbreviation like SF at the risk of being misunderstood perhaps says more about my character than I’d care to examine.

Further, the choice of the name Albino Books speaks to my love of the work of Moorcock, who is one of the kings of cross-genre experimentation, where these labels cease to be meaningful.

In my last post I brought up William Hope Hodgson, who wrote for pulp magazines long before the term science fiction was invented and before the semi-rigid marketing categories of science fiction, fantasy, horror and mystery became commonplace in bookstores. The recent emergence of the term New Weird is partially a reaction to the restrictions of these current genre definitions. Writers like my hero China Miéville, equally inspired by Hodgson, Lovecraft, The Island of Dr Moreau and Advanced D&D, have returned to a Weird Tales-style soup of unexpected genre tropes—tales of the fantastic and unusual.

I contend that the the impulse to mix these seemingly disparate elements is really the natural order.

I sympathize with the dogmatic loyalty many writers feel towards hard science fiction—or, yikes, even Mundane SF—the grounding in real science that would seem to provide a firmer foundation to build a story upon. But China Miéville is the perfect example of a writer comfortable in moving freely from genre to genre—weird tale, fantasy, science fiction, detective fiction and back again—with no loss of purpose or quality. The reason for this is his ability to fashion a new, airtight internal logic in each successive story. He establishes rules for each new world he plays in, then rarely or never breaks those rules. No matter how weird, or even transgressive, a given story element may seem in some of China’s work, they all flow together in sympathetic fictional frameworks—nothing seems completely out of place, even the truly weird.

There’s also some melancholy to be found in the way these adherents to separate splinter factions of fantastic storytelling often react to each other with open hostility. Don’t get your urban, romantic,  paranormal fantasy in my post-colonial, slip-stream, steampunk, science fiction—our imaginary nerd seems to say—you just don’t get it. As fans and practitioners of sci-fi, aren’t we already marginalized enough without turning on our brothers and sisters?

I understand the impulse that leads so many to expend so much energy on defining themselves and what they do—I’m even a sucker for a good manifesto—but isn’t the act of defining an art the first step towards codifying that art?

And isn’t codifying any art an inherently reductive act?

All Hallow’s Read: A Tropical Horror

With Halloween approaching, it’s once again time for All Hallow’s Read. All Hallow’s Read was proposed by Neil Gaiman in 2010 as a gift-giving opportunity linked to the spooky season. The elegantly simple premise: give the gift of a scary book on Halloween.

I’m not sure how much All Hallow’s Read is catching on, but I love the concept and would like to encourage the practice. On the All Hallow’s Read website, Neil Gaiman provides a great list of recommended books, and in that same spirit, I’d like to humbly offer a recommendation of my own: The Dark Horse Book of Monsters.

Actually, I really have two suggestions, one of which is very cheap, bear with me.

The Dark Horse Book of Monsters is a great little collection of comics about various monsters—suitable for young adult readers and up—but it also features a marvelously illustrated short story by William Hope Hodgson entitled A Tropical Horror.

William Hope Hodgson is a fascinating character from the early days of weird fiction. In addition to being a highly influential writer of pulp stories, he was also a poet, sailor, bodybuilder, marksman, photographer and all-around bon vivant who perished at the WWI battle of Ypres at the age of forty.

He left behind one of the most influential early books in weird fiction The House on the Borderland, which I have recommended before for All Hallow’s Read. Borderland was written before clear genre divisions like science fiction, horror and fantasy existed and blends them all freely into a strange and unique reading experience.

A Tropical Horror was the second story Hodgson had published and appeared in 1905. While the prose is a little creaky, A Tropical Horror is immediately engrossing thanks to a combination of realistic settings and details—acquired in Hodgson’s difficult time as an apprentice seaman—and an enveloping sense of dread built carefully through the story. By limiting the number of characters, moving the worst mayhem “off-screen” and telling the story through a first-person narrator with little to no agency, Hodgson creates a heavy sense of dread. The monster of A Tropical Horror is like a force of nature—death and destruction seems inevitable and is nearly inescapable.

The Dark Horse Book of Monsters would make a lovely All Hallow’s Read gift, primarily for the Hodgson story, but also for the remaining comics, which are great fun. But if you’re looking for a more budget conscious option, how about exerting a little crafty effort?

As the copyrights on most of Hodgson’s work have lapsed, there are a number of free versions of A Tropical Horror online, such as this one. Here’s my second suggestion: print out a copy of the story and bind it yourself. You could create your own illustrations or paste in pictures from something else—Liam’s Pictures from Old Books is a great source of material. You could also retype or hand-transcribe it in order to add a more personal touch. This might be a great activity to do with older kids so they can give it as a gift to someone else.

I like to promote the purchasing of books whenever I can to support the industry, but I think the more important point of All Hallow’s Read is just to keep people reading in general, and to help the like minded discover some cool bits of seasonally appropriate spooky writing.

William Hope Hodgson wrote some truly original and frightening work that deserves to be remembered and has a lot more to offer contemporary readers than you might suspect.