I was reading The Maltese Falcon again. Actually, I was listening to the audio version again. It’s a great book and I learn something new every time I read it. This time, I was reflecting on how The Maltese Falcon wasn’t much of a mystery. It was all about the hunt for the Falcon. Then I realized the book did have a mystery. The mystery was who killed Sam Spade’s partner. Spade getting involved with the motley crew in the search for The Black Bird was a means to an end (and what a means to an end).
I marvel at the power of The Maltese Falcon. The book is as fabled as the fictional bird contained within its pages. Seventy-five years after publication people are still reading the book. People know the story just by the mention of the title. Sam Spade is an archetypal character. He’s the gold standard by which all other PIs are judged. Wow, what a legacy.
I got to thinking how hungry Hammett leaves me. Spade was the kind of guy to get mixed up in a whole bunch of nonsense time and time again. The Maltese Falcon provided the perfect platform to launch Sam Spade as a series character–the same way Raymond Chandler did with Philip Marlowe–but Hammett never reprised Sam Spade. How could Hammett do this to me? What a meanie.
Then again, I can understand Hammett’s reluctance (if he did indeed feel reluctant. I don’t know. I’ll have to do some checking). The Maltese Falcon was Hammett’s third book and his breakout book. How do you follow The Maltese Falcon? A new chase could start for the Dingus but there’s a big chance that it would pale in comparison to the first. Spade could get mixed up in a whole new adventure, but again, the story and characters would have to rival those from The Maltese Falcon. It’s a daunting proposition laced with plenty of downfalls that could lead to tarnishing the Falcon and Spade’s name. I can see why Hammett never did it. Personally, I wouldn’t touch a sequel with a ten-foot barge pole. I know a few weeks ago, I talked about how I’d love to write for Doctor Who and Batman, but I wouldn’t want to be handed the chance to write a new adventure for Sam Spade. The reason is that the Doctor and Batman’s characters are wide open. I’d have room to take chances and even if my story sucked, it would be lost in the wealth stories already written without besmirching those characters’ names, but with Spade’s character, there’s no wiggle room. Screw up and everyone will remember it.
That said, a little while ago, I read that ex-San Francisco PI and writer, Joe Gores was working on a Spade prequel called, Spade and Archer. No better person to ask. Joe is a San Francisco legend and an authority on Hammett, but even so, what a challenge. Joe, you’re a much braver writer than I am. 🙂
The problem is that time and readers have turned The Maltese Falcon into something larger than the sum of its parts. It’s an icon in every sense of the word. That status comes with great benefits and drawbacks.
I think it would be cool to write a book of The Maltese Falcon’s ilk, but I don’t think it’ll happen. Books like The Maltese Falcon can’t just be written. There’s something special that happens that fires the writer and readers’ imaginations. If there is a secret (or a formula) to writing a classic book, I haven’t worked it out yet. If I do, I’ll let you know.
Yours still searching,
PS: Time is catching up on me. Accidents Waiting to Happen will be out in less than three months. So that means I’m gearing up to do my book signing schedule. I’ll be sticking to the West Coast, but I will be jumping across country from time to time. If you have a favorite bookstore or book club and you’d like me to visit, let me know. Send me details and contact information and I’ll see what I can work out.
I think you’re right, Simon. Lightning strikes very rarely in this genre. Great post.If you come to Nashville, Davis Kidd is a monster independent and a great store. We also have very active chains with people enthusiastic about the genre. If you shoot for a second Tuesday, you can hit the Sisters in Crime meeting too.
The Falcon is considered so important and so classic because it did something that had never been done before. That’s why it won’t be written today.
When Hammett wrote it, there weren’t hundreds of authors churning out variations on a theme. He created a theme. He created a character that has been stolen from for decades.
For that to happen today, it would have to be a book that, while serving a particular genre, did something in its characters, structure or theme, that hasn’t been done before. And do it incredibly well.
Great post, Simon. And you’ve got me thinking about other books that managed to “do something that had never been done before,” and do it well.
Although they may not be in the same legendary status as The Maltese Falcon, what about Capote’s In Cold Blood? Or Katherine Neville’s The Eight? Or Jaspar Fforde’s first series?
They’re all iconic for me.
What an interesting take on Hammett, Simon. Much food for thought there. I guess if I had to choose other icons – besides Hammett – I’d go for Chandler and Cain. And of course, le Carre for the spy novel. But I guess I’d have to say – of all of these great writers – Somerset Maugham would be my all-time favorite. Not a mystery writer in the traditional sense – but isn’t the heart of men and women a mystery?
Fascinating post, Simon. Thank you. Now, I’ve got something to think about when I’m grating those damn potatoes tomorrow.
Simon, Hammett wrote three Sam Spade short stories, too.
Where would I find ’em?