As a part of the Lewis & Clark Library’s, THE BIG READ Under the Big Sky, the twelve of us, from the Quarry Hill Book Club, met this past week for our group discussion on The Maltese Falcon. As promised, there were liverwurst sandwiches and coffee. It turned out that these sandwiches were from a crack o’dawn scene between Sam Spade and his pretty client Brigid O’Shaughnessy. It’s a scene, in Spade’s kitchen, where readers see a softer side of this hard-boiled private detective.
Gene Allen provided our group with a biographical background on the author, Dashiell Hammett, and some publishing history on his novels. As a avid book collector and reader, Gene offered some more food for thought, and showed us some original Dell paperback editions with their stunning artwork. A bit of a historical perspective was thrown into the discussion, and such events as the world at the brink of war, and mob activities in Chicago— including the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre—were considered. The book was published in 1929, by Alfred A. Knopf, but had also been serialized in The Black Mask, a popular magazine.
Hammett’s connections with Montana enlivened the conversation. The history museum curator among us brought up her reading of Red Harvest (1929). This is Hammett’s fictional story of a town reminiscent of Butte in the 1920’s. In real life, Hammett had worked as a detective for the Pinkerton’s, and he’d been sent to Butte to handle a few matters between union organizers and the mines. This discussion thread made me consider the possibility of looking into the bridges between fact and fiction, and how this could be another avenue of activity for any of us participating in THE BIG READ.
I wouldn’t say the group came to a consensus on the reasons this particular book had been chosen for 2010, or whether it was great literature. Some ideas included: it’s a short book; and for encouraging reading, among those who might be leery that reading could be as much fun as say: paintball, this is an action-packed novel; it’s a novel with enough plot twists, innuendo, and history mixed into framework of plot, character, and setting to satisfy a range of readers. I wouldn’t say that everyone enjoyed the book. My thoughts on the book changed as soon as Hammett rolled out the history of the statue for our consideration. Most agreed that Hammett crafted more than a few sentences with humor and insight, and one of our favorites was found on page 64: “His second wife didn’t look like the first, but they were more alike than they were different. You know, the kind of women that play fair games of golf and bridge and like new salad recipes.”
My conclusions about the book altered drastically in the last few pages. I will stick with my theory that Sam Spade is an anti-hero in a story where there isn’t much black and white, but instead multiple shades of gray and plenty of shadows. Look to the loyal secretary, Effie Perrine, and consider her feminine intuition. She’ll be the one with the look of surprise on her face at the end.
Julie Saylor, our fearless organizer, researched and found this site for discussion topics. http://www.wab.org/events/bigread07/discussion.shtml
It might be useful to your own gatherings.
I did look up about two dozen terms and slang words from The Maltese Falcon that had stumped me. I found references for most, and these definitions, along with their cultural context, broadened and deepened my understanding of the book, and the research made feel a bit like a detective, which only added to the experience of reading the novel. I did not, however, find a definition, or color swatch, for the word: Artoise – page 54: “She’d put on a satin gown of the blue shade called Artoise that season.” I await feedback from our readers . . . Oxford Dictionary owners? French-speaking readers, or costume history buffs?