When I finished The Maltese Falcon and offered it to my son, he asked whether it was “all just noir bullshit and cliché”?
Well, yes. But this is the book from where the noir bullshit and cliché came from. So it wasn’t cliché when he wrote it. But, yes, reading it now in 2017, it’s pretty hard to take seriously.
Which raises the interesting question of whether something can become a cliché of itself?
(Of course the answer may seem obvious to anyone who has seen an Al Pacino movie from Scent of a Woman onward, but I digress.)
At the same time, one wonders whether Sam Spade was ever intended to be a real-life-type character, even back in 1929. You can find numerous descriptions of Spade in blurbs, blogs, reviews, etc., as an “archetype” but not a “stereotype”. As well as an author who and book that transcends the apex of the genre into generally great writing. Which may be true. But it’s hard to imagine anyone (other than Humphrey Bogart on a movie set) actually being or speaking like Sam Spade. As the detective himself observes, when your partner dies, you are supposed to react in some human way, even if you didn’t like him all that much, (and particularly if you are sleeping with his wife). “When you’re slapped you’ll take it and like it”? “Listen, Dundy, it’s been a long time since I burst into tears because a policeman didn’t like me”?
For me though, the book represents something else entirely.
In college I took this really good introductory course in Education, which included a series of writing assignments in which the goal was to be completely 100% objective. It took many of the students eight or nine drafts before they got it right. For better or worse, I seemed to have a knack for it. And when I first had the dream in Greece that became the germ of what would become The Gordian Knot, I thought it might be challenging to try to write something purely in that style. Sure, I had studied the concept of “third person objective” in English classes along the way, and assumed that it had been employed in short stories and brief non-fiction pieces. But I had never read an actual novel that was written in a pure third person objective style. With, effectively, no narrator. In real distance, and in real time.
In the 25 or so years since I wrote The Gordian Knot, I have been successfully searching to not find another book written in the same style. Even when someone professed or was described to have recounted fictional events only as they would be seen and heard (e.g. Michael Crichton), it would generally only take a few pages (if that) to find some narrative invention, interpretation, supposition, paraphrasing, or other “cheating”.
Last year, however, Karen saw a special on the Great Courses series, advertising not only a large discount but also a two-for-one type of thing, and got me a series of audio CD lectures on How to Get Your Book Published, with a series on Writing Great Fiction thrown in for free. I would listen to the CDs at the office while doing e-mails or other menial tasks. And the author/lecturer, Professor James Hynes, kept referencing The Maltese Falcon as an example of third person objective, in which the reader only sees and hears what he or she would see or hear if they were a fly on the wall or standing in the room with Spade. Still, I held out hope and maybe even assumed that this was somewhat over-stated. That there would be some background information, insightful projection and/or interpretation, paraphrasing of events, or other cheating.
And perhaps “he looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan” is cheating a bit.
But I reluctantly have to agree with Wikipedia: “The story is told entirely in external third-person narrative; there is no description whatever of any character’s internal thoughts or feelings, only what they say and do, and how they look.”
So, alas, the search is over. And so is the dream. It had been done.