Since I live in the middle of nowhere, it takes time for me to get from nowhere to somewhere, time that generally I spend in an automobile. Usually I'm by myself and there's no one to talk to. In order to engage my brain on the journey, I rely on audio books.
A couple weeks ago I was looking for a new audio book at the library, didn't find anything that appealed, and ended up picking up a copy of The Maltese Falcon. Over the years I'd read the book multiple times, and of course seen the John Huston version of the movie, with Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, more than once.
It took hearing The Maltese Falcon read aloud, however, for me to develop a proper appreciation of the book. When a book is read aloud, all its flaws clang out like temple bells. Padded or meandering passages seem interminable. Repetition makes you grind your teeth. Awkward writing rings like a milk can bouncing down stairs, whereas bad writing simply shrieks at you.
The Maltese Falcon doesn't have a single wrong word. Every word or phrase or sentence takes you somewhere you need to go. Each character has a distinct manner of speaking that is attuned to his character and personality. Every word serves to move the plot or elucidate character. There is no wasted space, no padding, no unnecessary subplots.
Reading the Falcon made me pick up an audio book of The Thin Man, which I came to admire for similar reasons. The Thin Man's plot is more complex, and its characters come from many different walks of life: they're all distinct and well drawn, especially the hysterical socialite whose every appearance makes you clench your teeth--- and who is important to the structure, because she's the big shrieking arm-waving scene-stealing red herring whose job is to distract you from the villain, who (once you think about it) is fairly obvious.
Since I'd read the book multiple times and seen the movie ditto, I knew who the baddie was, and I came to admire Hammett's methods of distracting the reader from the character who ought to have been the chief suspect. First, the villain is the most normal and likable person in the book--- the others are criminals, detectives, or crazed rich neurotics. Even the schnauzer Asta likes the bad guy (Asta was a Yorkie only in the movies). And second, there are a lot of characters who are so annoying that you really wish they'd done it, and are hoping that Nick Charles will pin it on them. (Charles himself isn't Jack Armstrong, either--- he's a middle-aged soak who's had an affaire with a married suspect.)
Reading a book you already know well is one way of appreciating how the work is structured. If you already know where the story is going, you can concentrate on how the story is taking you there.
Which brings me, again, to The Maltese Falcon. One of the things I noticed was that the book is written in third person objective--- while you're with Sam Spade the entire time, you never know what's going on in his head except insofar as he chooses to share it with other characters. (And then, often as not, he's lying--- as are they.)
Spade is described as looking like a "genial Satan." He's sleeping with his partner Archer's wife, he's not terribly put out by Archer's death, he doesn't seem interested in vengeance or justice at all. He treats women badly. He keeps telling people that all he really cares about is the money, and you have no data to indicate otherwise. To all appearances, Spade is a heel.
If you were reading this book fresh in 1930, and hadn't seen the movie and knew nothing other than what the book told you, you wouldn't know that Sam Spade is the good guy--- not until the last scene, when he sends Brigid up the river for murdering Archer. That reversal would have come as a complete surprise, and a revelation. Hammett succeeded in hiding that particular football right up to the book's climax.
Now suppose're in a theater in 1941 to watch the Huston film adaptation. You haven't seen the earlier adaptation with Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels, and you haven't seen the comic adaptation with Bette Davis, and you haven't read the book. And there you are watching Humphrey Bogart play Sam Spade.
You've seen Bogart before, and you know he isn't a leading man. Up to this point, Bogart has always played the heavy. He's the gangster, the gunman, the crooked lawyer, the criminal kingpin. You have no idea that this is the breakout role that makes him a huge star.
If you're watching the film in 1941 with no prior knowledge of the story, you would have had no idea that Bogart was the good guy. In that final scene, you would have been just as poleaxed as the first readers of the book in 1930.
There's probably no way that anyone can re-create the original experience of seeing the film today. Even if you have no prior knowledge of the story, you at least know that Bogart is the star, and presumably the hero, and you'll assume that he'll sort out the villains by the end.
You'll just have to enjoy the movie for its eerily perfect casting, with Mary Astor (fresh from a divorce scandal) as the bad girl, and including Sidney Greenstreet, age 62, in his very first film role and Peter Lorre with his morphine addict's twitch. You'll appreciate Huston's economical direction--- he edited in the camera, to make certain the studio wouldn't screw up his masterpiece--- and the straight-from-the-novel dialogue.
As for me, I'm going to see if I can locate audio books of Red Harvest and The Glass Key.