The plot is unpredictable and satisfying, and a good reason to read this novel. But it’s not the main reason. The main reason is…
The people! God, the people! It’s not a nice group portrait, but it’s an amazing one.
Cynical, manipulative, ruthlessly, remorselessly dishonest.
Brigid O’Shaughnessy (if that’s her real name), who when one of her lies is uncovered, apologizes… and tells another one. When that one’s exposed, she apologizes and tells another. You never actually know if you get the truth from her.
Caspar Gutman, who considers letting Wilbur – “He’s like a son to me!” – hang for a murder because, well, I can get another son. WTF? I don’t think you’re clear on the concept of a son, dude.
The main character, Sam Spade, who sleeps with his partner’s wife (stay classy, Sam) and thinks of his partner as a sap. But when his partner is murdered, hunts down the killer, because
When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. … we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it.
The way people commit murder and arson, etc., just to get their hands on a valuable bauble. It’s just money, people. Sheesh.
The endless, endless layers of lies, from everyone, not just O’Shaughnessy, such that you never hear the truth at all, or if you do, you’re never sure because it might just be another lie. It ineluctably calls to mind the classic metaphor “hall of mirrors.”
The fact that (SPOILER) we never see the real Maltese Falcon, or even know if such a thing actually exists, or is just a myth, a mirage that this collection of liars, killers, and thieves is chasing.
An answer to the question “Is there honor among thieves?” Answer: No.
Another SPOILER warning. In the final scene the major (surviving) participants are sitting around in a room coldly discussing which of them the others will accuse of the unresolved murder, so the rest of them can walk free. Our “hero” is in on this; and though he’s not the killer, he obviously doesn’t care much whether the true killer is the one who goes up for murder. In the end, it’s the true killer who gets accused to satisfy the cops, but this is only because it’s the most convenient solution for everyone else, not because it’s true.
It’s a pit of vipers, among whom our hero is merely the least objectionable viper. Although he makes this intriguing statement: “Don’t be too sure I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be. That kind of reputation might be good business – bringing in high-priced jobs and making it easier to deal with the enemy.” But of course we don’t know if we can trust this, either.
All this sounds like I’m coming away from the novel with a main reaction of moral disapproval. But that’s not the case. Hammett himself plainly doesn’t approve of most of this – except for the hero’s admirable ability to avoid being conned by professional con men and women – he merely shows it to us. And so the main reaction this reader has is not “That’s appalling!” – though it is appalling – but, “Wow, what an astounding portrait of a certain set of people!” They’re horrible people, yes, but they’re horridly fascinating horrible people.