Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Big Gun

Charles, shifting gears.

This Thursday I’m participating in a panel discussion on the Maltese Falcon, part of an event called The Big Read here in Rochester. I’m honored to do this because I think that the Maltese Falcon is just about the best book the mystery genre has ever produced.

There is some close competition, however.

The Donald Westlake/Richard Stark series is, line for line, the best-written series I have ever read. There is not a wasted word in any of these books – and he packs more nasty into one paragraph than anyone else crams in a book. And all without a swear word. Hard, cold, word-perfect writing. I defy you to name a better series.

Next on my list, Walter Mosley’s early Easy Rawlins books. Now I wasn’t quite born yet when Easy was working his Devil in a Blue Dress case, but I sure feel like I was there. I taught US History for years but none of the text books we used or any of the ancillary readings portrayed what it was like to be Black in America before the Civil Rights legislation better than these books.

Jon Clearly. Not a mystery writer but if I’m mentioning my top guns, he’s on the list.

Maybe the best second-best novel is Lawrence Block’s When the Sacred Ginmill Closes. If I hadn’t read Hammett’s Falcon, this would be #1.

But I did read the Maltese Falcon and everything else is an also ran.

Forget the story about the details of Miles Archer’s murder, forget all about the Falcon – this is a story that deals with core human values and the best-realized post-modern philosophy in print. If Camus had been this clear, religion would lack even the hocus-pocus, superstitious, well-it-was-good-enough-for-grandpa value it has enjoys today. I can’t even think at this level without getting headaches, let alone write at it. When I re-read the Falcon I wonder why I even bother to write at all. And I wonder why I waited so long between readings.

It’s not perfect. There’s all that homophobic/homoerotic stuff as well as the implied xenophobia and sexism, but those same charges could be leveled against The Odyssey. And yes, I believe they are of the same caliber. Long after people stop reading Michael Connelly and Sue Grafton and every single obscure-occupation detective with a cat, The Maltese Falcon will still be read.

So why don’t I just tell you what makes it so great?

If you read it, you’d know – and anything I’d say would trivialize it.

If you haven’t read it, don’t admit it. Just rectify that situation as soon as possible.

So, my fellow bloggers, what say you?

1 comment:

Rick Blechta said...

You make several very cogent comments in your entry, Charles, but I would have to add Ian Rankin to your little list.

_The Maltese Falcon_ is indeed a great piece of literature. The writing is lean, muscular and reflects much about the time in which it was written. But I would posit that it is essentially a man's book. I don't believe many women would feel as strongly about it's greatness as you (or I) do.

That's one. Second is that books of this calibre are considered by those not of the hoi-polloi to be a detective or mystery story first. You would find very, very few literary types waxing as poetic as you over the novel's worth. This is too bad. Even a book such as they can't completely shake off the shackles of the genre ghetto.

Lastly, I feel one of the great, unsung (or not nearly sung loudly enough) virtues of crime writing is that it reflects more clearly than any kind of writing the age in which it is set. You talk about _Devil in a Blue Dress_. It's exactly the perfect example. Not many books capture an era warts and all, as well as both of these books.