The Maltese Falcon was the first book I imagined in black and white. I must have seen the movie half a dozen times before reading it, read it a couple of times since, and find it impossible to imagine with anyone but Bogart as Sam Spade. Yet despite being famous as a black and white film, the novel is actually rich with colourful descriptions of clothes and hair and eyes. I picture each scene with red hair and eyes of yellow-grey or cobalt-blue distinct from the b/w backdrop.
The plot is simple. There's this object called the Maltese falcon, an object so valuable that men will kill to acquire it. The Maltese falcon is a fine example of what Alfred Hitchcock called the McGuffin, an object which the entire plot hinges upon possessing. Sam Spade's partner, Miles Archer, is killed while trailing a man and the man also winds up dead a few hours later. Spade stands accused of the second death and he must find the real killer to clear his name and avenge his partner.
With Sam Spade, Dashiell Hammett reinvented the hard-boiled detective. Holmes had Watson to chronicle his adventures and create a wall between the reader and the detective's inner monologue, keeping you guessing until the end. The Maltese Falcon is devoid of mental process, but rather a physical landscape of hard eyes and pensive stares and casual murder done in dark alleyways. Spade is surly, sarcastic and mischievous, ahead of the game for the most part, but the reader is never privy to his inner thoughts.
Spade drinks and smokes, he withholds information from the police and tells the DA to go to hell. He also beds his client and takes guns from thugs and gets knocked out and beaten, but emerges pure at the end of it all. There is barely a TV or film detective in the last eighty years that hasn't been in some way inspired by Sam Spade. The Maltese Falcon is a check list for how detective drama has be done ever since.