The Maltese Falcon – showing the way, not telling you which way to go

The Maltese Falcon is a detective novel by Dashiell Hammett, published in 1930. Its central character is private detective, Sam Spade, whose version of morality sits somewhere between bureaucratic, box-ticking police procedure, and criminal illegality. The writing style reflects the Spades’s personality, the whole book narrated in dispassionate third person. We are never told about anyone’s thoughts, only seeing what people do, what they look like, and various precise details of their surroundings. If you have ever heard that piece of writers’ advice about showing and not telling, then The Maltese Falcon demonstrates how it’s done. It’s all showing. There is no telling.

With no fancy philosophising of any kind, The Maltese Falcon appears very straight forward, very “hard-boiled” to use the term usually applied to this kind of detective writing. But the thing is, the spare, unfussy nature of the book gives rise to all kinds of thoughtful ambiguities. After all there is nothing in the book to tell you what to think. You are left to draw your own conclusions. Whether it’s the difference between right and wrong, or between what’s important or unimportant, the book unobtrusively leaves you to challenge yourself on these matters.

This sums up why novels are valuable in describing human experience, and why they have a place up there with scientific studies and text books. With their characteristic quality of showing, they tend to open questions up rather than shutting them down, allowing the reader to explore conundrums that are, by their nature, difficult to pin down to final answers.

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