Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Brigid O’Shaughnessy visits Sam Spade and Miles Archer, detectives, to ask them to trail Floyd Thursby. Archer, who takes the job, is murdered. Later that same night, Thursby is shot down in front of his hotel. The police suspect Spade of killing Thursby to avenge Archer’s murder. Brigid leaves word at Spade’s office that she wants to see him. She moves out of her hotel because she is afraid. At her new apartment, she says she cannot divulge the whole story, but she does tell Spade that she had met Thursby in Asia. They had arrived in San Francisco the week before. She assumes Thursby killed Archer but does not know who killed Thursby.
When Spade returns to his office, Joel Cairo is waiting. He offers Spade five thousand dollars for the recovery of a statuette of a black bird. That night, Spade is trailed by a small young man in a gray overcoat. Spade eludes him long enough to slip into Brigid’s apartment building. There, he learns that Brigid is connected in some way with a mysterious black bird, a replica of a falcon. Later they go to Spade’s apartment to meet Cairo. She tells Cairo she does not have the falcon. He will have to wait, possibly a week, before she can sell it to him.
The police learn that Spade is having an illicit affair with Iva Archer and begin to suspect Spade might have killed Archer so he could marry his partner’s wife. When the police arrive to question Spade about their new line of inquiry, they discover Cairo and Brigid in a squabble. Spade introduces Brigid as an operator in his employ and says they are questioning Cairo about the two murders. After Cairo and the police officer leave, Brigid tells Sam she does not know what makes the falcon important. She had been hired to steal it from a Russian named Kemidov in Constantinople, Turkey.
Next morning, before Brigid awakens, Spade gets groceries and then incidentally searches her apartment for the falcon, which he fails to find. He is certain Brigid knows where it is. Brigid is afraid of what Cairo might do, however, and Spade arranges for her to stay at the home of his secretary.
In explaining to Cairo how Thursby was killed, Brigid outlined the letter “G” in the air; Spade knows that special significance is attached to that letter. He confronts the youth who is trailing him and says that “G” will have to deal with him. Shortly after, a Mr. Gutman calls, inviting Spade to his hotel suite. Spade tells him that Cairo offered ten thousand dollars, not five, for the falcon. Gutman laughs derisively; the statuette is obviously worth a fortune....
(The entire section is 1055 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Although he appeared only in The Maltese Falcon and three short stories, Sam Spade has become Hammett’s best-known creation, largely as a result of Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal of him in John Huston’s scrupulously faithful film version (the third made of the book). After writing a second and somewhat weaker Continental Op novel, The Dam Curse (1929), Hammett turned to an entirely objective third-person narration for his next two novels, The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key (1931). In these works, he describes details of gesture and expression from the outside, as with a camera-eye point of view but never reveals characters’ thoughts or motives. This shift removes even the few traces of interpretation and analysis that had been provided by the taciturn Op and makes the analysis of the character of the detective himself the central concern of critics. The question that readers of The Maltese Falcon must work to answer is not “Who committed the crime?” but “What sort of man is Sam Spade?”
The story begins when a beautiful woman calling herself Miss Wonderly hires private detective Sam Spade and his partner, Miles Archer, to follow a man named Floyd Thursby, ostensibly to help her find her missing sister, who has run away with Thursby. Archer is murdered that night, and shortly afterward Thursby is murdered as well. Miss Wonderly, whose real name is Brigid O’Shaughnessy, turns out to be involved in a complicated plot to steal a priceless jeweled statue of a falcon, and Thursby was her accomplice. Other parties pursuing the falcon appear as the narrative progresses, chief among them the colorful figures of Joel Cairo, one of the first homosexual characters portrayed in an American novel, and Caspar Gutman, the unforgettable Fat Man, who is the mastermind behind the search for the falcon.
Unlike Hammett’s first two novels, The Maltese Falcon contains...
(The entire section is 795 words.)