Sam Spade runs a detective agency in San Francisco with his partner Miles Archer. He’s hired by the beautiful Miss Wonderly to track down her seventeen year old sister, who has fled from New York with the married, no-good Floyd Thursby. Whilst trailing Thursby Archer is shot dead and not long after Thursby is also gunned down in front of his hotel. The police initially suspect Spade since he was having an affair with Archer’s wife. On confronting Miss Wonderly it’s clear that she’s afraid and not who she says she is, but is also unwillingly to reveal her secrets. Shortly afterwards Joel Cairo enters Spade’s office demanding to search the premises, looking for a valuable black enamel bird. Whoever Wonderly is, she’s wrapped up in a much bigger game of hunter and hunted that now includes Spade.
This is the first book I’ve read from the Classic Crime Fiction Curriculum and within half an hour’s reading it was clear why it was voted onto the list. The characterisation is superb with each person well defined and memorable, the dialogue is snappy and well judged, and the plotting is first rate. The Sam Spade character, in particular, is an interesting invention – a sharp tongued, charismatic, womanising, man about town, handy with his brain and, if needed, his fists. The whole book had the feel of a good play – tight, closed sets with a handful of well-drawn characters in each scene that riff off each other through verbal sparring, violence and seduction, with plenty of melodrama and tension, and the story twisting and turning as it works its way to a satisfying conclusion. This is a lean, mean story that is action and dialogue driven, jaunting along at a terrific pace. It’s almost as if the book was written as a movie script. A thoroughly enjoyable read and I’m looking forward to reading more of Hammett’s works.