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...
(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...
(The entire section is 795 words.)
Chapter 1: Spade & Archer
The Maltese Falcon begins when a beautiful woman, who gives her name as “Miss Wonderly,” comes into the Spade & Archer Detective Agency and who wants to have a man named Floyd Thursby followed. Miles Archer, one of the partners in the firm, agrees with a lecherous grin to help Miss Wonderly personally.
Chapter 2: Death in the Fog
Sam Spade is phoned in the middle of the night and told that Miles Archer has been shot dead. He goes to the scene of the crime and then phones his secretary, Effie Perine, and tells her to break the news to Archer’s widow, Iva. When he returns to his apartment, he is met by two policemen, who ask if he knows anything about the death of Archer or the subsequent shooting of Thursby.
Chapter 3: Three Women
When Spade arrives at his office the next morning, Iva Archer is there. They are having an affair. Effie later tells him that Iva had been out when Effie arrived at her house in the middle of the night. Spade goes to Miss Wonderly’s hotel, only to find her gone. There is a message from her when he returns to the office, telling him to come to a different hotel, where she is registered under the name “Leblanc.”
Chapter 4: The Black Bird
At her hotel, Spade finds out that she is neither Wonderly nor Leblanc, but Brigid O’Shaughnessy. She acts frightened and begs Spade to help her. She admits to having been...
(The entire section is 2213 words.)