Anyone who has seen the 1941 film adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon has already also read it…to a point. The most famous and beloved film version of the story of Sam Spade on the trail of the black bird is actually one of those rare cases where the remake is superior to the original. In fact, the 1941 film version is one of those still rarer cases where it was the second remake that was better than either the original film adaptation or the first remake and the reason for the superiority of the result the third time around is that the screenplay that John Huston crafted for himself to direct still ranks as one of the most faithful of all time. With only a few minor exceptions that really do not impact the plot much at all, the screenplay of the film is about as close to a scene-by-scene translation of a novel as Hollywood has ever or likely will ever get.
Still, a film is not a book and the book version of The Maltese Falcon is historically significant for reasons that that the film can never touch. With this book, Dashiell Hammett either invented or perfected the archetype of the American hardboiled private detective novel. The tough-talking PI, the femme fatale, the idiosyncratic cast of low-life suspects and the morally ambiguous world in which law enforcement and lawbreakers operate are all there with breathtaking originality that owes nothing to Sherlock Holmes or the legacy of British detective stories. The only aspect missing from what would become the template for a century’s worth of PI fiction extending beyond the page and back up onto screens both silver and small was a first person accounting of the narrative.
With all that history which came in its wake, reading the tale of the Gutman, Cairo and whoever the heck Brigid really turns out to be can be rather jarring. The story seems to call out for Spade’s hardboiled recollection…until it suddenly dawns on the reader that the predominant theme of the shifting sands of truth and authenticity would ultimately make a first-person version of The Maltese Falcon considerably less influential than it ultimately has become.