I’m in the middle of reading The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett. Well actually, according to my newly-acquired Kindle Paperwhite, I’m 19% through reading it. I happen to be a desperately slow reader compared to many of the people that I know, so this time next week I may have plowed through another few virtual pages and, who knows, may be proudly boasting a massive 20%. In any case, it’s a fairly absorbing story featuring the private detective Sam Spade. So far, there have been two murders, both of which take place off-scene, as it were. I was expecting some graphic description of the shootings to back up Hammett’s reputation of being the progenitor of the hard-boiled detective story. So the fact that you only hear about them when Spade is called in the middle of the night by a police detective, was rather disappointing. Not so much hard boiled as over easy.
I suppose most writers have their blind spots, aspects of writing that they’re just not very good at and Hammett doesn’t disappoint. His lack of expertise lies in the area of description. Here’s an example right from the beginning of chapter 1:
“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.”
Yes, I’m sure the effect Hammett is trying to create was that of a blond satan, but he ends up describing what appears to be some sort of aardvark.
The next chapter gives us further intriguing description of Spade to work with:
“The smooth thickness of his arms, legs, and body, the sag of his big rounded shoulders, made his body like a bear’s. It was like a shaved bear’s: his chest was hairless. His skin was childishly soft and pink.”
A shaved bear? You don’t see many of those nowadays do you. But, oh well, I can just about imagine that. But the fact that his skin is childishly soft and pink makes me think, not of some ravening beast of the forest roaring in the night, but of a jelly donut.
Hammett also has difficult in describing people’s facial expressions. Here’s an quick gist from later on in the book:
“Spade stopped her with a palm-up motion of one hand. The upper part of his face frowned. The lower part smiled.”
Quite a trick to pull off. I’ve seen many constipation sufferers with much the same expression.
Then there are the curious animal noises that Spade makes:
“He made a growling animal noise in his throat and went to the table for his hat. “You won’t,” she begged in a small choked voice, not looking up, “go to the police?” “Go to them!” he exclaimed, his voice loud with rage. […] Spade made the growling animal noise in his throat again and sat down on the settee. “How much money have you got?” he asked.
I’m not sure what kind of noise this growling thing is. Do bears make them in weak protest at having to be shaved just for the delectation of the reading public? Also, Hammett has to tell us that “He made a growling animal noise in his throat.” Where else, I wonder can you make growling animal noises from? Who knows? Perhaps that’s one of Spade’s party tricks, making animal noises from different parts of his anatomy.
All these little idiosyncrasies so far haven’t put me off finishing the book. In fact they perform the function of an entertaining sideshow to the main plot, which, so far is taking its own sweet time about unraveling. After all, if the book’s called The Maltese Falcon, you might expect that after nearly 20% of the book the actual falcon would have turned up by now. Am I too impatient? Probably. But remember that I read about as slowly as a shortsighted kindergartener in the dark.
Never mind. I shall take a deep breath, shrug my big, rounded, bearlike shoulders, making disconsolate animal growling noises in my throat, and soldier on.