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Tuesday, June 03, 2014

The Maltese Falcon (1930) by Dashiell Hammett

Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in the 1941 John Huston directed film version of the Maltese Falcon

Book Review
The Maltese Falcon (1930)
by Dashiell Hammett

  The most interesting aesthetic phenomenon of the 20th century is not the parallel development of "high" and "low" culture, but rather the related event of specific works crossing from the "low" side of art to the "high" side.  It is a phenomenon that is not exclusive to the 20th century- you could argue that some of the earliest novels crossed from low to high art before such a distinction existed, but the 20th century, with an explosion of media and exponential growth of Audiences for all sorts of art and art products, really brought the movement from low to high (and vice versa) into focus.

 The Maltese Falcon is a strong, early example of something published as "low" art becoming "high" art over a very  short period of time.  Hammett himself made claims even prior to the initial publication of The Maltese Falcon in serial form (a year prior to it being released as a novel) that "future" critics and audiences would regard it as a great work of literature.  Hammett was assisted by the 1941 film version, starring Humphrey Bogart and directed by John Huston, which turned out to be one of the greatest films of all time AND adhered relatively closely to the language of the actual book.

  Although Hammett worked in genre fiction, and inspired decades of sequentially released detective fiction paper backs starring the same detective in re-occurring episodes, he himself did not dillute his genius with successive sequels.  Perhaps some of the "high art" status accorded to The Maltese Falcon was due to Hammett having the biographical attributes of other famous novelists- he was sickly, had limited productivity, and didn't right much after the fertile period of the 1930s.

 In fact, the investing of the main character with a name and personality (Sam Spade) was itself something of a departure for Hammett himself, whose main character in his short fiction was a nameless man called "the Continental Op."   Hammett's work is, of course, a model of tight, economical prose and his influence is visible on several generations of artists working both inside of literature and outside, It's hard to even imagine film noir existing without The Maltese Falcon- novel or book.

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