The Big Read

'The Big Read,' a south county literacy project, will feature the 1929 novel 'The Maltese Falcon.' Organizers hope to encourage everyone in the community to read the novel in February.
by: Gini Bramlett, Rick Samuelson, librarian at St. Helens Public Library, is organizer for

The murder of Sam Spade's business partner, Miles Archer, is one of two intertwining plots in Dashiell Hammett's 1929 classic detective novel 'The Maltese Falcon.' The second plot is to find the jewel-encrusted medieval falcon. Although the novel was published nearly 80 years ago, it is still popular today, especially with mystery and detective novel aficionados.

'The Maltese Falcon' was unique for its time in that the novel depicted our so-called hero, Sam Spade, as a cool, play-by-my-own-rules character rather than the typical righteous by-the-book detectives of the time. Spade is on the trail of his business partner's murderer and gets involved with a seductive, manipulative young woman who Spade isn't quite sure he can fully trust. 'It's pretty much got sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll,' said Rick Samuelson, librarian at St. Helens Public Library. 'It's very much a dark attraction.'

Samuelson is chairman of the Friends of the Library and director of The Big Read, a communitywide reading program that will kick-off at the end of the month. It encompasses distributing copies of the book, encouraging people to check out or buy their own copies to read simultaneously with the rest of the community. 'The whole idea is to get people to talk about something besides the weather,' said Samuelson.

Samuelson got involved with the Big Read last summer while bouncing around the Internet looking at ideas for reading programs. The Rotary Club had approached the school district about lending support for a literacy-building project in the community. Hoping to inspire lapsed readers and/or reluctant readers, they suggested a countywide everybody-read-the-same-book type program.

The Northwest Regional Education Service District, librarians, educators and literary-minded people got behind the idea. On his Internet cruise, Samuelson stumbled across The Big Read grant program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). He spent a weekend last summer applying for the NEA grant as well as a grant from the Oregon Council for the Humanities, for a total of $8,000. 'The thing that attracted me is they (NEA) provide so much free material and guidance than if you were doing it from scratch,' said Samuelson. 'It's a pretty prestigious grant. There's only three in the state of Oregon. It's a pretty cool thing.'

For Samuelson it is a very cool thing. He is a novice in the library business and the program is his first endeavor with a project of this magnitude. 'I've worked at libraries accumulatively about eight years, but this is my first project of this size,' said Samuelson, who has been with the St. Helens library for a little over a year and has a master's degree in library science from the University of Pittsburgh.

In addition to a magnitude of publicity materials, the NEA provided a list of 16 book titles for the committee to choose from. 'The Maltese Falcon' fit the bill because of its potentially wide appeal. 'It's the one the group chose to appeal to a broader base, especially young people,' said Samuelson.

According to Samuelson, The 'Maltese Falcon' was also chosen because of its West Coast location (San Francisco), action, intrigue and the double-crossing, sometimes slimy characters all searching for the missing artifact worth millions. Hammet's descriptions of the characters, the dark alleyways and foggy streets in the windy city, and Spade's coarse, but authoritive attitude easily make the story come to life. Also, interesting and somewhat humorous is the jargon of the time period.

February is slated as 'The Maltese Falcon' Month in South Columbia County with the fun starting at the program kick-off on Thursday, Jan. 31, at 6 p.m. in the Loo Witt room at St. Helens High School. The first 50 guests will receive a free copy of the book. Everyone will be treated to food and beverages as well as a guest lecturer on 'The History of Mystery in the Northwest,' a Portland-based mystery appreciation society.

The remainder of the events will take place throughout the month of February and will include 'The Sam Spade Radio Hour' presented by the Shoestring Players, a 'Create a Maltese Falcon' contest for artists, and a 'Build a Falcon' contest for kids with weekly book discussions. In addition, Phillip Margolin, a New York Times bestselling mystery author, will share how 'The Maltese Falcon's' author has influenced his writing. On March 1 at 4:30 p.m. there will be a screening of the classic film, (directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart).

Multiple copies of 'The Maltese Falcon' will be available at local libraries as well as at The Book Shop in St. Helens.

Schedule of Events:

Jan. 31 - 6 p.m. kickoff at Loo Witt Room at SHHS

Feb. 5 - 6:30 p.m. Book discussion at St. Helens Library

Feb. 7 - 7 p.m. Margolin lecture at Columbia Center


Feb. 12 - 6:30 p.m. Book discussion at St. Helens Library

Feb. 16 - 10 a.m. 'Thin Man' movie marathon at Columbia

Center Auditorium

Feb. 19 - Book discussion at St. Helens Library

Feb. 21 - 6 p.m. The Shoestring Players 'Sam Spade Radio Hour'

at St. Helens Senior Center

Feb. 23 - 1 p.m. Build a Falcon contest at Columbia Center


Feb. 26 - 6:30 p.m. Book Discussion at St. Helens Library

Mar. 1 - 4:30 p.m. Movie Screening of The Maltese Falcon

at the Columbia Theater