Sam Spade and Me

The other day, while out at our camp in Lincolnville, I pulled an old hardcover mystery anthology from 1959 off the shelf, flipped to the first entry, and started reading.

The selection was The Maltese Falcon, written in 1930 by Dashiel Hammett. As the editor of Ten Great Mysteries noted, an auspicious way to start a collection which includes works by Dorothy L. Sayers, Erle Stanley Gardner, Margery Allingham, and Rex Stout. 

Vicki Doudera here, admitting that I have never read this most famous of crime stories, and that I was immediately hooked. Arguably one of the twentieth century’s most influential works of fiction, the novel virtually created the genre we call noir, a realistic style of writing that ushered in generations of imitators, including many of us who pen fiction today. Yes, it’s dated, but the San Francisco streets Hammett described still seem gritty. The dialogue, although oft parodied, is well done and rarely stilted, and manages to sound menacing without the use of one four-letter word.

For me, where The Maltese Falcon especially shines is in its introduction and depiction of the protagonist, the very prototype of the hard-boiled detective, Samuel Spade. Cool, calm, and collected, tough (and yet occasionally tender,) Spade is so well drawn that it’s surprising Hammett trotted him out only a few times.

Did I picture Bogart while reading about Spade? Of course. It’s impossible not to. Talk about your perfect casting! Or is that just because I saw the movie first, before I could form my own version of Spade? No matter —  I’m looking forward to seeing the film again for comparison’s sake.

As a mystery writer, I enjoy reading anything in my genre, but it’s especially rewarding to read a classic like this and feel compelled to know who dunnit. I see techniques that this master writer used and marvel that I do some of the same things. I think about the way the plot unfolds — the little nuances that are nearly invisible, and yet so vital. I watch how Hammett weaves in supporting characters, red herrings, and suspense. I want to keep reading… and I want to write.

I’ll probably work my way through this whole anthology this summer, both for pleasure and for edification. After all, none of these masters remain with us – all have gone to their big Underwoods in the sky — and so reading their works is a kind of homage, too. The book’s a bit musty, but nothing a trusty antihistamine can’t counteract. An occasional sneeze for hours of pleasure? I’m sure even hardboiled Sam Spade would approve.

This Friday, I’ll be at the Bath Book Shop at noon, signing copies of the latest Darby Farr Mystery, Final Settlement, and talking mysteries.  Come out and say hello!


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