My next Classic Read was supposed to be I, Claudius by Robet Graves. I'm about 50 pages in and enjoying it, but something's come up and I've decided to throw in Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon.
It's a very short, fast read, so it almost doesn't count. I've read Hammett's Red Harvest -- set in Montana! -- and have seen John Huston's film version of The Maltese Falcon many times.
There's a (likely apocryphal) story that Huston asked his secretary to transcribe the book with some basic directions and the dialogue before he embarked on writing the script for the film. When studio Head Jack Warner dropped by the office and saw the secretary's transcription, he thought it was the script, read it and greenlit the picture.
That may not be true, but the resulting film (that made Bogart a star) does follow the book scene-for-scene, and almost line-for-line. Which is fine, because the book's diagloue is written in the spare, hard-bitten, gritty style that would come to characterize film noir in general, and amoral detective protagonists in particular, for the next sixty years.
A classic exchange, between our "hero" Sam Spade and two policemen (Tom Polhous and Lieutenant Dundy) who have dropped by Spade's apartment in the middle of the night, fishing for leads on the murder of Spade's partner. We start with Spade after Dundy has threatened him:
He stopped smiling. His upper lip, on the left side, twiched over the eyetooth. His eyes became narrow and sultry. His voice came out deep as the Lieutenant's. "I don't like this. What are you sucking around for? Tell me, or get out and let me go to bed."
"Who's Thursby?" Dundy demanded.
"I told Tom what I knew about him."
"You told Tom damned little."
"I knew damned little."
"Why were you tailing him?"
"I wasn't. Miles was--for the swell reason that we had a client who was paying good United
States money to have him tailed."
"Who's the client?"
Placidity came back to Spade's face and voice. He said reprovingly: "You know I can't tell you that until I've talked it over with the client."
"You'll tell it to me, or you'll tell it in court," Dundy said hotly. "This is murder and don't you forget it."
"Maybe. And here's something for you to not forget, sweetheart. I'll tell it or not as I damned please. It's a long while since I burst out crying because a policeman didn't like me."
You can't get much better than that. This is a style that defined a genre and continues to inspire myster writers to this day.
The Maltese Falcon is a fast, blistering joy to read. And I'll be back to I, Claudius and the Roman Empire before too long.