Dashiell Hammett's 1930 detective novel The Maltese Falcon has become an iconic text in American literature, not just as the source of the classic film noir starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, but in itself as a work of fiction that exemplifies the twentieth century's new "hard-boiled" style of American detective fiction that in the end would be associated particularly with Hammett but also with other detective and crime novelists whose work would provide the textual basis for the remarkable visual phenomenon of 1940s noir (Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain). It is hard to get a sense, for a contemporary reader, of the scope of Hammett's achievement here, because so many of his effects which were aesthetically radical at the time have now become so entirely assimilated by our own sensibility that Hammett's originality is best realized in comparison to the Victorian detective fiction that he replaced. There is practically a quantum leap between Sherlock Holmes and Sam Spade, even if they are only separated by a generation or so. Hammett exemplifies a kind of fresh modernist approach to literary method and style, compared especially with previous fiction in similar genre, and it is worth looking closely at his style in The Maltese Falcon to get a greater sense of his enduring achievement.
The language of The Maltese Falcon overall is heavily descriptive and makes use of literary devices which increase the novel's sense of immediacy and atmosphere. An example comes early in the book, during Hammett's description of Sam Spade, where he relies on onomatopoeia to describe the auditory environment of Spade's office: "The tappity-tap-tap and the thin bell and muffled whir of Effie Perrine's typewriting came through the closed door." (Hammet 4). The dialogue frequently makes use of poetic imagery above and beyond slang: for example, at the end of the first chapter, we get to hear Spade telling his partner Miles Archer about their new client "Miss Wonderly" (soon to be revealed as Brigid) "don't dynamite her too much" (Hammett 10). If this is a contemporary use of slang from 1930, then Spade is certainly using it in a novel kind of way to make his point: Archer's immediate repetition of Spade's word "dynamite" marks it out as a kind of term deliberately chosen descriptively. As we will learn, "Miss Wonderly's" story is entirely fictional and her emotive convulsions in the first chapter are entirely a sham: the imagery of something that will soon explode is to a certain degree apropos, and Hammett seems to be giving us a hint that Spade has an instinctive sense of these things: we certainly know, in the novel's overall scheme of characterization and meaning, that the fate of Brigid at the end of the novel will have everything to do with the fact that she was deliberately lying to both Spade and Archer in this scene.
Of course, one way in which Hammett maintains the hard-boiled tone of the book overall is to permit this slangy and colloquial method of speech even to continue in the novel's more emotionally tense or resonant moments -- so in the second chapter, we realize that, as Sam Spade is surveying the corpse of his dead partner, that the fact of death in this world is no occasion for euphemism or excess sentiment. Hammett instead depicts policeman Tom Polhaus as unable to speak except in these brusque catchphrases, even while Spade stands there refusing to grieve: Tom tells Spade that the bullet got Miles "right through the pump" (i.e., his heart) and was killed with "one pill" (i.e., a single bullet) (Hammett 14). This may seem like pure atmospherics, but it has an important effect on readers of the novel. At this point, the reader may have the slightest inkling that Spade disliked Archer and was having an affair with his wife. By the last chapter, Miles Archer's murder is presented by Spade as an act requiring ethical response, in the famous speech he gives to Brigid before making her "take the fall": in Spade's famous formulation at the novel's end "When a man's partner is killed he's supposed to do something about it…it doesn't make any difference what…He was your partner and you're supposed to do something" (Hammett 213). One of the subtlest overall structural maneuvers used by Hammett to organize the novel is the way in which Spade's relationship with Archer is only glimpsed very briefly in the first chapter: Archer is shot dead by the next, and so we are presented with facts relating to Spade and Archer (like the affair with Archer's wife). This enables Hammett to structure suspense around the police investigation -- as Spade offers them the full scenario in a glib fake confession to Polhaus later, "Uh-huh. I could've butchered Miles to get his wife, and then Thursby so I could hang Miles's killing on him. That's a hell of a swell system, or will be when I can give somebody else the bump and hang Thursby's on them" (Hammett 71). We know from Spade's cynical summary here that any criminal good enough to murder Archer and escape without being seen is unlikely to have engaged on a strategy which would entail constant and repeated murders of additional witnesses or accomplices. But of course by this point, the cops have discovered Spade's real relationship to Archer, even as Archer never did: "If you say there was nothing between you and Archer's wife…you're a liar, and I'm telling you so" (Hammett 71).
But of course the "hard boiled" linguistic effects in Hammett match a hard boiled philosophical core. One of the best places to observe this in the novel comes in a moment which is not retained in the Humphrey Bogart film, Spade's anecdote about his investigation of a man named Flitcraft. Flitcraft has what can only be described as a sort of existential crisis when, while working on the factory floor, he survives the accidental collapse of a beam. His survival, though, leaves him with a sense of shock and alienation: "he felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works" (Hammett 63). Suddenly this invokes a sense of vertiginous moral relativism in Flitcraft, who now considers the world to be full of dangerous and improbable sudden horror (like the falling beam he escaped) and so flees his family and home to relocate elsewhere in a classic mid-life crisis -- Flitcraft wants to be "out of step, and not in step, with life." (Hammett 63). But as Spade traces Flitcraft to Spokane he discovers that the new freedom has actually produced no fundamental transformation of personality. The existential crisis produced terror, but it did not produce any alteration in Flitcraft's own basic character, and Spade cynically notes that "That's the part of it I always liked…He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling" (Hammett 64). Spade presents this story as illustrative and to a certain degree it represents a kind of cynicism, but also a kind of worldview in which fear and mortality conspire to urge that the ordinary bonds of family life be shuffled off.
It is worth saying something about the San Francisco setting of the novel, and also the louche rogues' gallery of minor characters who are included here. The reputation of San Francisco as a kind of mecca for the homosexual community was already partly established by 1930 but was hardly widespread and common knowledge: if Hammett's inclusion of so many obviously "queer" characters -- to use the slur which Brigid throws at Joel Cairo early in the novel, "this guy is queer" (Hammett 42) -- is intended to be a wry wink at Bay Area demographics, it is certainly not…