Thursday, February 10, 2005

The Maltese Falcon turns 75

Sam Spade at 75
"The Maltese Falcon" celebrates its diamond anniversary.

Thursday, February 10, 2005 12:01 a.m. EST

The Pulitzer Prize for the best novel published in America in 1930 went to a book by Margaret Ayer Barnes titled "Years of Grace." But it was quite a different 1930 novel that would enter American cultural folklore and remain in print into the 21st century.

Feb. 14 marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of Dashiell Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon": that riveting tale involving a San Francisco private detective named Samuel Spade and a diverse crew of miscreants, all in search of a coveted 16th-century statuette. The anniversary will be commemorated, this month and next, by lectures, exhibits, and celebrations at the Library of Congress in Washington (near Hammett's Maryland birthplace, and his Arlington National Cemetery grave), and in San Francisco, where the story was written. And the novel is available from Vintage/Black Lizard in a newly packaged trade-paperback edition (as are two other Hammett books, and a new anthology, "Vintage Hammett").

Thanks in part to the equally classic 1941 John Huston film starring Humphrey Bogart, the tale of the Falcon and the character of Spade have become embedded in popular myth. "It's taken on a life of its own," says Hammett biographer and scholar Richard Layman. "There's a nursery in Montana called Sam's Spade. There's a piece of antispam software called Sam Spade. 'Sam Spade' means something to people who maybe don't even know that there was a novel written by Hammett."

As for that novel, its critical reputation continues to grow. Hailed on publication by such influential reviewers as Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woolcott, "The Maltese Falcon" in time earned praise from such European novelists as André Malraux and André Gide. Hammett's prose was compared favorably to Hemingway's, and it was reported in the press, circa 1930, that Dashiell Hammett was a contender for the Nobel Prize. "The Maltese Falcon" has been published in 76 foreign editions in 30 countries. In 1998, the board of the Modern Library named it one of the best hundred novels written in English in the 20th century.

"It is an American classic without qualification," says Prof. Layman, who will give the Library of Congress talk on "The Maltese Falcon" on Feb. 15. "The novel is 'a ripping good yarn,' on the one hand; on the other hand, it's a book that can be held to the highest literary standards and acquit itself well." The book broke fresh ground, he says. "That sort of hard, individualistic attitude of Sam Spade was something that I think was brand-new: an innovation of Hammett's. And that use of indirect third-person narration, to achieve what Hammett was looking to achieve, is very skillfully done. . . . He was proud of it, I think. When he submitted it to Knopf, he said words to the effect of: 'I've got this one right, you guys; don't fiddle with it!'"

No matter how high its literary standing, "The Maltese Falcon" will always be a most subjective pleasure for one particular reader: its author's only surviving child, Jo Hammett Marshall.

"I suppose I first read the Falcon when maybe I was nine years old or something," says the 78-year-old Mrs. Marshall, author of the memoir "Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers" (2001). "I love it, and I've reread it over the years. But . . . I keep mixing up Spade's voice and the narrator's voice sometimes with my father's. I know this isn't kosher, this isn't how you're supposed to read books! But in a way it's kind of interesting, because so much of the dialogue--well, particularly Spade's--sounds like something my father might say in a similar situation. I was thinking about the bit where he tells Brigid that he's sending her over, and he hopes they won't hang her, she's got such a pretty little neck--but he'll always remember her! I can't quite picture my father being in that kind of circumstance, but if he were--that's what he'd say!"

Read the rest here.

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