First up was The Big Sleep, which I liked, but not as much as The Long Goodbye. It's the difference in time. This book is set in the pre-War years, while The Long Goodbye is set fifteen or so years later. This Marlowe is impulsive, mostly leaping before he looks. He does dumb things. He has to rely on the kindness of strangers to keep from getting himself killed. He does have the brains, but he's not yet experienced at thinking things through. He must have only just taken up chess. The later Marlowe is far more calculating and collected. He's smart *and* experienced. It's easier to like a book when you're not internally saying, "That was stupid," to the lead character.
Structurally, the books are similar. Marlowe is hired to do a job, some stuff happens, he figures it out, and that mystery is solved about halfway through the book. Only there's always another layer, a thread dangling that Marlowe notices, and then picks at and picks at until it starts to unravel. He probably plays with his pen at meetings, too. The themes are similar as well. Marlowe's clients are either wealthy, or living off wealth. In Marlowe's world, money not only doesn't buy happiness, it corrupts, mentally, emotionally, even physically. And yet once he's hired, he's does his best for his wealthy, corrupted clients, because that's what honor and loyalty demand. Marlowe is definitely someone you want on your side.
(Idle side thought. I once said I couldn't think of what actor I could use to portray Marlowe in my mind. Neither Bogart nor Mitchum really matched up, and there was no way it could be Elliot Gould. I've since discovered that both Dick Powell and James Garner played him. I can't really see Garner, either, too laid back. I don't know about Powell, but he does look a bit like my idea of Marlowe. The really scary thing is that while reading The Big Sleep, I started hearing Marlowe's lines voiced by Leslie Neilson in my head, and it worked.)
Not so much with Sam Spade. I have a problem with The Maltese Falcon. I admire the writing greatly. Hammett has a knack for description. He describes people, places, and complicated actions perfectly, and yet does it succinctly, in a few lines rather than a endless paragraphs (coughMichaelChaboncough). His description of Spade's face in the opening paragraph of the book is wonderful. I doubt John Huston had very many problems adapting the book to a screenplay. All the stage directions are right there on the page.
My problem is that I pretty much hated everything else about the book. You have an unlikeable hero who does stupid things versus the gang that couldn't shoot straight. I've seen folks call The Maltese Falcon "probably America's greatest detective novel." I just can't see it. Spade can end to the whole affair any time he wants. All he has to do is cooperate with the police. Which he refuses to do, even though it's pretty clear at the end that he knew all along who killed Archer. Drove me crazy. Feh. I'll stick with The Thin Man.
I also read Batman: Year One in there, and it's a lot of fun, although it is more about James Gordon then Bruce Wayne. Still, it's cool watching Wayne learn how to be Batman, yet another version of the myth. There is some stuff that bugged, but it's more how the canon, as I learned it, is changed. When I ignore that, I can enjoy.