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The black bird's on the move during Rockaway Public Library's Big Read of  The Maltese Falcon. Photo courtesy of the library

With nearly 30 books to his credit,  Walter Mosley may be best known for his 11 mysteries featuring the deceptively-named L.A. detective  Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins. In this excerpt from an interview with the NEA, Mosley muses on the complex morality of another hardboiled California detective---Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade.

Hammett is always talking about heroes who are flawed, and so here you have Sam Spade [in The Maltese Falcon], who's been having an affair with his partner's wife. His partner gets murdered, and Spade has to figure out where he stands in relation to the world after the murder of this partner who he's cuckolded. He meets a whole cast of characters, all of whom are untrustworthy, and he has to somehow find his way to making the right moral decision.

It's always an interesting question when you're talking about a novel. Well, how do novels work? Novels work on one level with character and character development. I think at the beginning of the novel, Sam Spade has one set of morals, which allows him, for instance, to cuckold his partner without having any disdain for him really. But he has to find a new moral code by the end of the book, so I don't think that you could say what is his moral code, because it's in flux, it's changing. And even at the end, we're still a little uncertain about it, because in order to make a decision, you have to almost always go against yourself, and I think that that's a lot what the book is about. I think that [Spade] finds that he has conflicting desires, and because of those conflicting desires he comes up with a decision that nobody's completely happy with, not the reader, not him, not Brigid O'Shaughnessey, not the Fat Man, not Joel Cairo, no one.

It's an existentialist book inasmuch as somebody has to make a decision about how they're going to live their life, and Sam Spade does that. And Sam Spade changes. He becomes a different man, even though I think he doesn't believe it's possible to become a different man.

Hear more on Hammett from Walter Mosley and others on The Maltese Falcon radio show. To find the falcon in flight near you, visit The Big Read calendar.

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