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THE MALTESE FALCON by Dashiell Hammett (Vintage: $6.95)

August 27, 1989|CHARLES SOLOMON

Sixty years after its initial publication, "The Maltese Falcon" remains one of the most skillfully written detective novels in the history of the genre. As few modern readers will be able to erase the images from the classic 1941 film, it's interesting to contrast the Dashiell Hammett and John Huston versions of the characters. The original Sam Spade is both more verbal and more vulnerable than Humphrey Bogart's cynically taciturn gumshoe, and Hammett describes him as looking more like Alan Ladd. Joel Cairo doesn't radiate Peter Lorre's breathless hysteria, but Sidney Greenstreet embodies the character of Casper Gutman, better known as The Fat Man.

Despite countless imitations and spoofs, Hammett's clean, spare prose retains a hard-boiled appeal that makes "The Maltese Falcon" more entertaining than most contemporary crime fiction.

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