It turns out today is the 75th anniversary of the publication of Dashiell Hammett's masterpiece The Maltese Falcon. And while I've been somewhat remiss about posting (but not about reading!) my 50 books, it seems appropriate to comment on this one now (I read it on a train in Italy).
I'm actually not a big reader of detective fiction, but I'd been meaning to read Hammett on the recommendation of a friend with whom I share a common interest in Robbe-Grillet and the nouveau roman. He was right; Hammett's spare and strictly external style blew me away, first in its similarity to Robbe-Grillet, but also in how appropriate it was for detective fiction. Maybe it was last year I read The Big Sleep, and, well, Chandler doesn't have anything on Hammett when it comes to technique, even though he was writing later. The discipline required to craft Hammett's precisely noncommital narrative -- especially when he didn't have a writing background -- is really stunning. Let me recommend Robbe-Grillet's The Erasers for those who'd like to see this technique taken to its logical conclusion.
The other thing that interested me about The Maltese Falcon was this game theory post from Baude a couple months back -- I'd been wondering just how closely the novel tracked his analyses, which, incidentally, I'm still not sure I comprehend, except in a purely academic sense (what good, I ask, are rational actors who are compelled to act according to some preimagined scheme?). What became clear in reading the novel though was just how appropriate a subject Sam Spade is in any discussion of game theory -- he's the ultimate rational actor, and he appears in an entirely amoral context. Again, the technique is central to making this work, but Hammett also makes the calculations disturbingly explicit. It's good stuff.