Thursday, August 21, 2008

Book Review: The Maltese Falcon

I got my hands on The Maltese Falcon by Dashiel Hammett after much effort, I must tell you. It was on my wishlist after I read somewhere (where the- was it, I can't recall now) that it was a classic detective novel, a literary masterpiece, highly-recommended by someone respectable in the field. You can click on the Amazon link at the title here and see that readers have raved about this book.

It begins with a description of a man. He's the protagonist, sure, but what a way to start a book? Why would I care how this chap looked, unless it was meant to *mean* something in the story? I don't know if it *will* mean something later on, when I'd have forgotten how the- he looked in the first page, I don't know and I don't care at this point.

There's a telling piece of dialogue next: "Yes, sweetheart?" What a hook. Which leads to the protagonist detective Sam Spade's secretary, Effie Perine, and a description of her hair, her eyes, her voice, skin, face. She says someone wants to see Spade. A customer perhaps. She is shown in, and we launch into a description of her.

I read until page 67 and could take no more. Descriptions of every darn character in the scene, *especially* the colour of his or her eyes. And not just once, but again and again. A blue that was almost violet. A hard green. How much of this can a person take?

It reads more like a screenplay but in novel format, with all the directions of how exactly a character must hook his punch, enter a room, look at the person across, the tone of his voice, whether it's gravelly or smooth, contradictory in being soft but actually menacing. I think I'll watch the movie if I can get it (but I won't be trying too hard) rather than *work* through this book.

It's a slim one, but it violates a lot of the modern rules of writing. This is written a hundred years ago, published in 1929, and perhaps for that time, this was a hot book, a quick read, satisfying, etc. but it is more difficult to read today than the classics like Charles Dickens or Jane Austen despite its being a detective novel, a mystery.

The book I have is a 1984 edition and the text at the back says:

When this book was first published, the London Times Literary Supplement wrote:
"This is not only probably the best detective story we have ever read, it is an exceedingly well written novel."
The years that have passed since then have only enhanced the book's reputation. It stands today as one of the classics of both suspense literature and American writing.

Obviously, these people never read P D James.

After getting away from this, it was like coming home to comfort and sense and beloved nonsense, like reaching a bottle of water after dying for it, to start reading Neil Gaiman.

I'm starting on Neverwhere.

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