Love the spare, in-your-face writing of today’s crime fiction greats? Turns out their style goes back a long way. Orion debut novelist Steve Cavanagh looks at the original (and best) modern crime thriller that’s also a classic.
The genesis of the modern mystery novel can be traced back to 1930s California, and two writers who contributed to Black Mask magazine. Those writers were Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Between them, they created the modern crime thriller we know and love today. Many of our best-loved writers (such as Michael Connelly) can trace their influences back to these two men and the unique, hard-boiled private detectives they created: Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Hammett’s Sam Spade. These characters are noir icons, and both were immortalised for the screen by Humphrey Bogart.
Chandler and Hammett’s work is often compared, and at least one thing is true – Chandler may have been the better stylist, but Hammett was by far the better novelist. Don’t get me wrong, Hammett was no slouch when it came to prose. If you look hard enough you can see shadows of his sparse, stripped-down style today in the works of James Ellroy and Lee Child.
One of Hammett’s best-known books – there are only a handful – is the first novel to feature Sam Spade, Private Detective. In 1930 The Maltese Falcon was serialised in Black Mask magazine and the world was introduced to Spade. For those of you who haven’t picked up a Hammett novel before, you’re in for a treat. The book kicks off with Spade being visited by a beautiful (and more importantly for Spade, a solvent) damsel in distress, who is nowhere near as innocent as she’s making out. Within a few pages Spade’s partner, Archer, has been gunned down and the detective is determined to discover the identity of the killer.
We also learn that Spade was having an affair with Archer’s wife, and so the light and shade of Hammett’s leading man becomes ever more blurred as we follow our hero though the dim streets of San Francisco on the trail of truth, money and the ultimate McGuffin: a black, diamond-encrusted bird that is the murderous talisman for Hammett’s cast.
The plot is smooth and fast, like bourbon trickling over ice.
The characterisation of this band of treasure hunters, thieves, femmes fatales, double-crossers and murderers leaps off the page in Hammett’s trademark physical descriptions. In The Maltese Falcon, the characters are the landscape.
Hammett is one of those writers you simply must read – and yet as soon as you open the book, all thoughts of ‘I should read this’ dive out of the window as you quickly realise that this is a writer you love reading.
So pick up The Maltese Falcon and rediscover a crime novel that is not only a classic – it’s probably the classic.
Steve Cavanagh was born and raised in Belfast before leaving for Dublin at the age of eighteen to study law. He currently practises civil rights law, and in 2010 he represented a factory worker who suffered racial abuse in the workplace, and won the largest award of damages for race discrimination in Northern Ireland’s legal history. His first novel, The Defence, is published by Orion in March 2015. Find out more on Steve’s website.