It’s rare that I buy a book on the strength of a film. Maybe this is a unique example of that particular method of choosing literature. But last week in a bookstore, Dashiell Hammett’s famous title leapt out at me – and because I think that Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade is about as good as it gets, it slipped into the proverbial shopping basket.
The cover blurb (again, never a good reason to choose a book) tells me that it is “Possibly the best American detective novel ever written”. Well at least Otto Penzler is quoted as saying so. Given the competition there is for American detective novels, I was ready to be thrilled.
But this isn’t a novel that does it through thrills. This, like I suppose the film and like one of Sam Spade’s roll-ups, is a slow smouldering fire. Hammett doesn’t have the descriptive skill of Chandler, but he makes up for it by building a complex interaction of characters and places. And of course double-crosses follow double-crosses building the sort of story line that draws you into someone elses' life.
As I read this book I was disappointed. I’d hoped for another Chandler, but it was only in the final chapter, as it all falls together and Sam Spade wins by sheer grit, determination and his complete inability to be awed by anyone, that I realised what a truly great novel this is.
I’m glad I didn’t remember the ending of the film in detail. Because this is a book that lives by it’s ending. And the sad, poignant final paragraph sums up that these are real men and women, not the cardboard cutouts you normally associated with pulp fiction.