I’ll be honest: I was reluctant to read this, because I’ve never been much of a mystery reader, but as soon as I started it sucked me in. There’s a reason it’s a classic: it’s the best of its genre, but it’s also GOOD no matter what you normally read. Seriously, if you love San Francisco, read this book.
The wonderful thing about The Maltese Falcon is that, despite the fact that it’s set in 1928, before either the Bay Bridge or the Golden Gate Bridge were built, the San Francisco it presents is utterly recognizable. From the murder scene at the Bush and Stockton tunnel onwards, I could picture exactly where the action takes place and how Sam Spade moves through the city block by block, making calls and pounding the pavement to keep tabs on the other main players and locate the titular “black bird”. It feels like San Francisco: cold steamy air, the sound of foghorns, old hotels, American grills, and of course the familiar sound of street names like O’Farrell, Geary, Leavenworth, Post. And it makes use of its setting that goes far beyond the incidental, with scenes centering around a ship from Hong Kong in the port and Effie Perine taking a ferry across the bay to check the theory on the Maltese Falcon with her cousin, a professor at UC Berkeley. Spade says several times throughout the story that this is HIS town, and given how picky we locals are it could easily have come off as fake and pathetic, but it’s such a perfect depiction of San Francisco that we’ve instead returned the favor and embraced The Maltese Falcon as a vital part of SF literary history.
The other great thing about this book is the dialogue and the constant posturing and negotiation between the characters. Sam Spade is cool. He faces tricks, threats, deception and murder without blinking or breaking a sweat. (He’s also a total womanizer, but the sexism is so archaic and ridiculous that you have to laugh at it—during a tense moment in the climactic scene, without a trace of irony, he literally orders femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy into the kitchen to make them all a sandwich. And she does.) The dialogue is snappy, pitch-perfect and full of great one-liners, and apparently it was left almost completely intact for the movie version, which means I’ll be watching it as soon as I get a chance.