Litereature 101: Maltese Falcon

Here’s the syllabus, folks.  Twice a month (hopefully) we will be summarizing, analyzing, and/or in all general respects, discussing a work of literature.  Our aim is to broaden horizons, enlighten readers and ourselves, and bring out the zest in books and poetry.  Following our concise but rewarding discussion, we’ll then work to create a feast inspired by the work.  This can range from a dessert, an entrée, or even an entire dinner spread.  We might focus upon themes, specific characters, physical recreations of items, or a play/pun upon the title or subject matter.  The furthest reaching edge of Creativity is our only limit.


The subject matter itself is not set in stone; rather, we will see where the days, weeks, and months take our appetite for reading.  Be it fiction or memoir, fantasy or historical, we will be confined by nothing but what we desire to read and cook and eat.  So let us

move to our first novel: The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett.

This book was selected for one of the hundred book clubs I “participate” in.  Mostly I just nod and smile and say “sure, of course I’ll try to read the book this month.”  But I’ve been missing the rigors and challenges of reading proper literature, so a friend and I started our “classic” book club, in order to read remarkable, challenging, innovative, canonical works of fiction.  I chose this one for being the seminal detective novel of the early 20th century.

Observations: Only a little bit spoiled because I had seen the motion picture based on the novel perhaps a year or two ago, with Humphrey Bogart as the ultimate Sam Spade, private detective. Nevertheless, I didn’t remember everything, and even if I had, the writing carried the story along with a great blend of smoothness and ruggedness that kept you in the dark all the way through.  If you are familiar with the term “Hard-boiled” detective novels, you’ll know this epitomizes that; there is little to no overt emotional connection between the reader and the characters (no translucency).  We are not meant to get inside anyone’s heads, we are not meant to hear what they are thinking or feeling.  It’s overtly about the story, about how to get by and carry on in life without revealing anything.  This novel was first published in 1929, late Modernist era (following WWII), and in some ways reflects to me the styles of Ernest Hemingway, especially in the need to retain the masculinity of the characters by not allowing any emotions to surface.  But whereas with Hemingway – the men were already emasculated in some way and thus needed to retain some power – Hammett’s main character Spade is by all accounts the man’s man: he is a charmer, he gets around the law time and time again, he induces fear and yet emotes such a nonchalant attitude you wouldn’t believe he feels anything.  The very opening of the novel  begins with likening his features to the devil, further empowering him (at the same time as putting his morality initially under scrutiny).

So then what?  Is this really only a crime novel and nothing else?  One of the most salient tools Hammett uses to indiscreetly portray reactions and thoughts is through people’s eyes.  Throughout the novel there was so much focus on how one’s eyes gleamed, where they looked, how the eyes reacted in a certain situation, during a conversation, even at the most seemingly mundane moments.  Careful scrutiny allows the reader to actually see so much more through the character’s eyes, even if there is hardly any description of WHAT they are seeing, but rather HOW they are seeing it.  And that was an absolute delight for me.  It enable the reader to try and solve the puzzle alongside Spade, even if we don’t get to process information with him, even if we are left in the dark time and time again because no one ever truly shares their thoughts.  The eyes are our vehicle.

Furthermore, color rages prominently, whether it’s his dark gray suit or Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s piercing blue dress, or the effeminate Greek Joel Cairo and his bejeweled and primmed appearance.  The city (San Francisco – yet another reason I loved it, got a taste of SF in the 20’s) glows in a myriad of shades, from dawn until dusk, setting the moods and sometimes just completely throwing the reader for a loop.  So these are the two things I took most strongly from the novel: the running symbolism of the eyes, and colors.

Review: It was a quick read, sometimes daunting because you become exhausted trying to connect to a character and consistently being shot down.  But overall, worth the experience. This has to be one of the coolest detectives (no one ever tops the esteemed Mr. Holmes though) in literary history too, so you should try it out.


The Feast: Taking what I described, and playing with the image of diners et al. from 1920’s America, I wanted to make a whole dinner spread that both fits symbolically with the novel and doesn’t waver too far from the gritty, simpler grub that a detective in the 20’s would eat, barring special circumstances.  And I wanted it to have color too, in order to tie everything together.  I chose to base each main dish off a character specifically, because that worked so well.  And thus on Christmas weekend, G and I dreamed up:

  1. Deviled Eggs—for Sam Spade, the ‘hard-boiled’ topped with chopped onion and jalapeno detective with devilish features.  My brainchild here, I mixed the yolks with spicy mustard, red pepper hummus, and paprika (no mayo) to give it a gleaming red color and to add some spice and variety of textures.  Never did this dish before, but now I’m excited to try Devilishly gooddifferent fillings, it’s so simple!
  2. Silky Garlic Mashed Potatoes—as smooth and seductive (on the tastebuds) as Ms. O’Shaughnessy, this dish was quick but very powerful, a rich side indeed.  I boiled some peeled red potatoes, simply mashed them up with a fork and blended in milk, butter, and a clove of crushed garlic (plus salt).  I added some basil to give it a peppery look.  No idea as to quantity, just mixed until it literally melted in my mouth but wasn’t too creamy.
  3. Mediterranean salad—to represent Joel Cairo, an overtly gay character,d
    delicate and delectable

    efined by his perfumed and proper dress and handling of small guns.  I cheatedwith this, just buying a salad kit with feta, cranberries, and almonds.  We dressed it with lemon and olive oil, and I also topped it with some cooked sliced sweet minipeppers that go hand in hand with the final big dish…

  4. “Falcon” wings—our take on chicken wings, and my god was this an endeavor.  The novel circles around a statue of a maltese falcon, its theft and recovery.  Now G and I have been watching too much food network lately, and he wanted to try something new. So we brought vegetable broth to a boil, put sliced oranges, some garlic cloves, ginger, sliced sweet peppers, cloves, and let all the flavor marinated together. Separately we blended onions, tomato, cilantro, green chili, some spices, olive oil, and god knows what else into a paste.  We strained the broth, and in a sauce pan added some of it to the blend, cooking it down with honey and butter and some flour until it created a fairly thick, slightly tropical and spicy sauce.  It really took AGES to get it tasting good, but we got it.  We fried some wings marinated in the sauce (not all of it), and then tossed them in the remaining sauce.
  5. I also made some puff breadsticks: puff pastry sliced, brushed with melted butter, topped with brown sugar and parmesan, and baked at 400 until golden and poofy.

Feel free to ask if you have any specific questions about the recipes. But I think as far as themes go, this was a colorful spread that really lets the eyes savor before the mouth does, and I think everything matched the characters.  By far the eggs were the best according to G, but I relished being able to solve the caper of the Maltese Falcon Feast.



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