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The Maltese Falcon - General Discussion

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This is the BGO Book Club Read and I've finished and don't quite know where to put my comments. If some kind moderator would move my post to the right location, I would be very appreciative.

This was my second reading of the book and as soon as I started it, I remembered what I liked and didn't like about it and sometimes they were the same thing.

The first time around, I didn't like that it felt so stylized. It still feels that stylized and while it's not my favorite aspect of the book, it doesn't bother me quite as much this time around.

I mostly liked his descriptions, but they were so precise and referred to so frequently that they were sometimes distracting. The "v's" on Spade's face which, combined with his odd eye coloring (yellow grey), make you think of a wolf (he also does a lot of things wolfishly). Gutman's bulbous body, which looks like a collection of "clustered soap-bubbles not yet released from the pipe" that is referred to each time he appears. The description of Joel Cairo: "[h]is black coat, cut tight to narrow shoulders, flared a little over slightly plump hips. His trousers fitted his round legs more snugly than was the current fashion...He...came towards Spade with short, mincing, bobbing steps. The fragrance of chypre came with him." The "chypre" makes an appearance every time Cairo does.

The descriptions that were the most interesting were the ones of physical movement because they very precisely describe what a person does physically, in steps, so that you can see it happen. It's almost like stage directions. There are lots of detailed, step-by-step descriptions of cigarettes being rolled. When Spade is wakened in the middle of the night, the description of how he gets dressed is very detailed, starting with his union suit and finishing with his hat and the items he stuffs in his pockets. And the description of Spade disarming Wilmer at the end of Chapter 12 takes two paragraphs of very precise physical description.

I think this descriptiveness is part of what made it possible for the movie to be so perfect. Who else but Peter Lorre could have played Joel Cairo and who else but Sydney Greenstreet could have played Gutman? My only quibble with the movie is Humphrey Bogart, who doesn't look like Sam Spade to me at all.

I also liked the insight into the mores of the time and Hammett's take on them. Spade does not seem to be blinded in any way by the conventional views of the time. It's clear that Cairo is gay (they refer to him, casually, as "the fairy" and I think the appearance of "chypre" every time he appears is supposed to clue us in, although I had to look it up to figure out what it was) and he's quite taken with Wilmer, but he's not an ostracized character for that. In particular, Spade doesn't seem to care. He reserves his contempt for Wilmer.

And while Brigid O'Shaughnessy plays on everyone's prejudices about sweet young things, Spade sees through her pretty early and is the one who turns her in.

The only thing that seemed mired in the 1930s was the casual way he was always touching women, particularly his secretary. Ick.

So what are we to think of Spade?

I couldn't help but think that he had had some idea of what was going on the whole time and was trying to capitalize on it. His immediate hostility to Wilmer seemed fake to me and I wondered if he was riding him so hard so that at some point he could use his explosive reaction--or reputation for explosive reaction--to his benefit. Although it didn't work out quite as he had probably hoped and it certainly didn't work out very well for Gutman. Still, I didn't particularly trust him.



I'm looking forward to hearing what the others think.

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