I was back in Arizona taking care of my mom for a while, still Covid times, still so hot, so not much hiking. A lot of reading. For some reason I’m only now encountering classic Japanese crime novels and loving them. Possibly loving more the space of dialogue they create between them and the Western canon–particularly the locked-room mysteries of Christie, Carr, Doyle, LeBlanc, Poe, Chesterton etc–as they transcend it and do their own unique, rather more grisley thing. I mean some authors have even written footnotes to explain the references they are making. All the murderers (and detectives) are avid readers of detective fiction. You can tell who has done the evil deed by their book shelves (though sometimes secret book shelves, for obvious reasons). It’s awesome.
But in this mix I threw a Hammet and that turned out to be a spanner because then I read all of his novels again, despite the palpable lack of locked rooms. I still love them all apart from The Dain Curse, and not just because the procession of people of colour of various nationalities who feature as the not-so-bright and interfering hired help. Maybe mostly because of that, but I don’t like the structure either. Somehow it’s this novel reminds me of how much I hate the Pinkertons and his awful treatment of women, but those sit in tension always with all of his work.
Anyway, I don’t know that The Maltese Falcon is my favourite, but I love the baroque language of it. The description of Sam Spade is pretty good:
SAMUEL SPADE’S jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down from high flat temples in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.
But really it is Gutman who is both impossible and sublime.
The fat man was flabbily fat with bulbous pink cheeks and lips and chins and neck, with a great soft egg of a belly that was all his torso, and pendant cones for arms and legs. As he advanced to meet Spade all his bulbs rose and shook and fell separately with each step, in the manner of clustered soap bubbles not yet released from the pipe through which they had been blown. His eyes, made small by fat puffs around them, were dark and sleek. Dark ringlets thinly covered his broad scalp. He wore a black cutaway coat, black vest, black satin Ascot tie holding a pinkish pearl, striped grey worsted trousers, and patent-leather shoes.
His voice was a throaty purr. “Ah, Mr. Spade,” he said with enthusiasm and held out a hand like a fat pink star.
Then I watched what Roy del Ruth (The Maltese Falcon 1931), and William Dieterle (Satan Met a Lady 1936) did to it feeling a bit sick to my stomach. But it made me realise a little better how noir was knitted together not just by authors like Hammet, but by John Huston who directed the classic version in 1941, and Humphrey Bogart who is not a man of v’s, yet finally played Sam Spade to perfection. And Peter Lorre of course. And Elisha Cook Jr. And Sydney Greenstreet. And everyone else is pretty good too.
I loved each of the films’ Gutmans to be honest, even when transformed to Madame Barabbas played by the brilliant Alison Skipworth. Sadly, I have yet to see the human match of Hammet’s passage, possibly my favourite character description in all of fiction. Bulbs rise and shake everytime he arrives on a page, and it is magical. I do love a man with bulbs that rise and shake.