Ross Macdonald, himself one of the masters of the hard-boiled detective novel and a great admirer of Hammett's, calls The Maltese Falcon "a fable of modern man in quest of love and money." Indeed, the falcon — the symbol of the illusory nature of happiness through wealth — has such dominant power over the characters in the novel, including Sam Spade, that they will do anything to possess it.
Love turns out to be equally deceiving; just as the falcon is revealed as a fake, Brigid's love for Sam Spade is shown as false. True love, based on honesty and altruism no longer exists in the modern city; it has been replaced by mere carnal lust as a motivating agent. Miles Archer and Floyd Thursby lust after Brigid; Spade has an affair with Archer's wife and then sleeps with Brigid; Captain Jacobi, one may assume, either hopes for Brigid's favors or delivers the bird in compensation for favors already received. Human relations are shown as less than normal throughout the novel.
While the Continental Op combats the violence in his world with equal or greater amounts of violence, Sam Spade's world is characterized more by deception, and so his main strategy must be deception. The violence Spade generates is mainly due to frustration over his inability to separate illusion from reality. When he has finally solved the puzzle of the falcon, he can abandon his strategy of pretending to be a crook himself and turn an incredulous Brigid over to the police. His existentialist credo is a contrast of Effie's romantic world view; for Spade, reason and professional ethics conquer the temptations...
(The entire section is 658 words.)