Life as it ain't

"I'm not really from outer space. I'm just mentally divergent."

“He looked rather pleasantly like a blonde Satan.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on June 13, 2010

Book CoverThe above line is a near-perfect review of Dashiell Hammett’s noir masterpiece The Maltese Falcon.

But, since it’s considered too short, let me make a couple more points about it.

First, it’s written cinematically. The prose is ready to describe the scene in excruciating detail, with special love for protagonist Sam Spade’s expressions, but it never goes into anyone’s head. I remember in days when I still read thrillers, I always found it annoying how the writer was ready to go into anyone’s head and describe his/her back-story as a completely unrealistic memory just to further the plot. Hammett, wisely, and much like his protagonist, stays somewhat detached from the action, letting his prose – again, much like Spade – spring away and become an entity of its own.

A switch clicked and a white bowl hung on three gilded chains from the ceiling’s center filled the room with light. Spade, barefooted in green and white checked pajamas, sat on the side of his bed. He scowled at the telephone on the table while his hands took from beside it a packet of brown papers and a sack of Bull Durham tobacco. Cold steamy air blew in through two open windows, bringing with it half a dozen times a minute the Alcatraz foghorn’s dull moaning. A tinny alarm-clock, insecurely mounted on a corner of Duke’s Celebrated Criminal Cases of America—face down on the table—held its hands at five minutes past two.

Spade’s thick fingers made a cigarette with deliberate care, sifting a measured quantity of tan flakes down into curved paper, spreading the flakes so that they lay equal at the ends with a slight depression in the middle, thumbs rolling the paper’s inner edge down and up under the outer edge as forefingers pressed it over, thumbs and fingers sliding to the paper cylinder’s ends to hold it even while tongue licked the flap, left forefinger and thumb pinching their end while right forefinger and thumb smoothed the damp seam, right forefinger and thumb twisting their end and lifting the other to Spade’s mouth. He picked up the pigskin and nickel lighter that had fallen to the floor, manipulated it, and with the cigarette burning in a corner of his mouth stood up. He took off his pajamas. The smooth thickness of his arms, legs, and body, the sag of his big rounded shoulders, made his body like a bear’s. It was like a shaved bear’s: his chest was hairless. His skin was childishly soft and pink.

He scratched the back of his neck and began to dress. He put on a thin white union-suit, grey socks, black garters, and dark brown shoes. When he had fastened his shoes he picked up the telephone, called Graystone 4500, and ordered a taxicab. He put on a green-striped white shirt, a soft white collar, a green necktie, the grey suit he had worn that day, a loose tweed overcoat, and a dark grey hat. The street-door-bell rang as he stuffed tobacco, keys, and money into his pockets.

Second, there’s also a jab at hedonism in the book, but I’m significantly less interested in that.

Basically, this book, like an overwhelming amount of literature, is engaged in creating a world, and no review can describe what it’s like to read it, all the cynicism, humour, and, below all that, sense of honour that lies at the heart of this short book (just over two hundred pages long) and makes it one of the best I’ve ever read.

The above line is a near-perfect review of Dashiell Hammett’s noir masterpiece The Maltese Falcon.

But, since it’s considered too short, let me make a couple more points about it.

· It’s written cinematically. The prose is ready to describe the scene in excruciating detail, with special love for protagonist Sam Spade’s expressions, but it never goes into anyone’s head. I remember in days when I still read thrillers, I always found it annoying how the writer was ready to go into anyone’s head and describe his/her back-story as a completely unrealistic memory just to further the plot. Hammett, wisely, and much like his protagonist, stays somewhat detached from the action, letting his prose – again, much like Spade – spring away and become an entity of its own.

“              A switch clicked and a white bowl hung on three gilded chains from the ceiling’s center filled the room with light. Spade, barefooted in green and white checked pajamas, sat on the side of his bed. He scowled at the telephone on the table while his hands took from beside it a packet of brown papers and a sack of Bull Durham tobacco. Cold steamy air blew in through two open windows, bringing with it half a dozen times a minute the Alcatraz foghorn’s dull moaning. A tinny alarm-clock, insecurely mounted on a corner of Duke’s Celebrated Criminal Cases of America—face down on the table—held its hands at five minutes past two.

Spade’s thick fingers made a cigarette with deliberate care, sifting a measured quantity of tan flakes down into curved paper, spreading the flakes so that they lay equal at the ends with a slight depression in the middle, thumbs rolling the paper’s inner edge down and up under the outer edge as forefingers pressed it over, thumbs and fingers sliding to the paper cylinder’s ends to hold it even while tongue licked the flap, left forefinger and thumb pinching their end while right forefinger and thumb smoothed the damp seam, right forefinger and thumb twisting their end and lifting the other to Spade’s mouth. He picked up the pigskin and nickel lighter that had fallen to the floor, manipulated it, and with the cigarette burning in a corner of his mouth stood up. He took off his pajamas. The smooth thickness of his arms, legs, and body, the sag of his big rounded shoulders, made his body like a bear’s. It was like a shaved bear’s: his chest was hairless. His skin was childishly soft and pink.

He scratched the back of his neck and began to dress. He put on a thin white union-suit, grey socks, black garters, and dark brown shoes. When he had fastened his shoes he picked up the telephone, called Graystone 4500, and ordered a taxicab. He put on a green-striped white shirt, a soft white collar, a green necktie, the grey suit he had worn that day, a loose tweed overcoat, and a dark grey hat. The street-door-bell rang as he stuffed tobacco, keys, and money into his pockets.”

· There’s also a cynicism about hedonism somewhere in the book, but I’m significantly less interested in that.

Basically, this book, like an overwhelming amount of literature, is engaged in creating a world, and no review can describe what it’s like to read it, all the cynicism, humour, and, below all that, sense of honour that lies at the heart of this book.

3 Responses to ““He looked rather pleasantly like a blonde Satan.””

  1. I saw the movie years ago, and wasn’t that impressed for it being such a famous movie. Then again, David Bordwell mentions in his latest blog entry on Dreyer:
    The more you learn about cinema (and about life), the more you
    can see in films that you think you have already understood.

    Such may be the case with that movie.

    As for the book, I shall put it on my ever-growing list. :-)

  2. S M Rana said

    Saw the film ages back and maybe will again in the unspecific future to enjoy it better.

  3. Megan said

    I just stopped by your blog after reading your comments to my posts about The Maltese Falcon. Believe it or not, I still have loads more to write about that book, but I ran out of steam during “Maltese Falcon” (check back in a few weeks are there may be more ruminations on the Blond Satan and the Dingus).

    You make an interesting point about the cinematic quality of Hammett’s prose. This is a book that could only be written in the twentieth century, and the descriptive elements diverge sharply from what might be considered “the golden age” of detective fiction. Not only are the characters “hard-boiled” and morally ambiguous, but the story could be told through the disinterested, documentary lens of a camera rather than through the eyes of any given character.

    Oddly enough, I didn’t like the book or the film while reading and watching, but I keep returning to both in my thoughts and my writing. Maybe that’s what makes for truly great literature?

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