What happened to Joel Cairo?
At the end of The Maltese Falcon the police arrest Wilmer Cook, Joel Cairo, Rhea Gutman, and Brigid O'Shaughnessy. Gutman has been killed by Wilmer. Brigid will go to San Quentin. Wilmer will be hanged. Gutman's daughter will undoubtedly be released. Will Joel Cairo be tried for any crime? If so, what? If not, would anyone care to speculate about what became of him?
Joel Cairo's role in The Maltese Falcon is a little puzzling. He claims that General Kemidov employed him to recover the statuette which was stolen from him by Brigid O'Shaughnessy. Yet it turns out that the one she stole is a fake. Both Cairo and Gutman realize that Kemidov had a facsimile made out of lead and may or may not have known that Brigid was planning to steal it. Apparently she was employed by Gutman to let the General pick her up in some bar or restaurant and take her to his home for the night. Then she slipped out of his bed in the middle of the night and made off with the fake falcon. She doesn't tell Sam Spade all this in so many words, but it is pretty obvious that this is what she must have done. Now, why should the General employ Cairo to get it back if he knew it was a fake and that he had the real one in safekeeping? And did General Kemidov know that Brigid was working for Gutman when he picked her up? If so, why did he take her into his home?
It would appear that Dashiell Hammett wanted to add another character to his cast in order to muddy the waters, so to speak. The author wanted Spade's revelation of Brigid's guilt for murdering Miles Archer to come as a complete surprise at the end--which it does. If the reader is anticipating any surprise disclosure it would be helpful to have another suspect, and Hammett does his best to make Cairo seem like a suspicious character. Cairo carries a gun and pulls it on Spade in his office and a little later on Brigid O'Shaughnessy in Spade's apartment. Additionally, when Spade encounters Cairo in the lobby of the Belvedere Hotel the morning after the fracas in his apartment, they have the following exchange:
"Dundy take you down to the Hall?"
"How long did they work on you?"
"Until a very little while ago, and very much against my will." Pain and anguish were mixed in Cairo's face and voice. "I shall certainly take the matter up with the Consulate General of Greece and with an attorney."
But later when Spade is having lunch Tom Polhaus, the sergeant tells him:
"You poisoned that guy for us."
Spade laughed. "You mean a couple of high-class sleuths like you and Dundy worked on that lily-of-the-valley all night and couldn't crack him?"
"What do you mean--all night?" Polhaus protested. "We worked on him for less than a couple of hours. We saw we wasn't getting nowhere, and let him go."
Although Cairo is a suspicious character, it seems likely that the District Attorney would not charge him with any crime. The D.A. would be satisfied to have two good criminals to prosecute. Brigid killed Miles Archer, and Wilmer Cook killed Floyd Thursby, Captain Jacobi, and finally his employer Casper Gutman. The D. A. would have charged Gutman as an accessory to Thursby's murder and possibly to Jacobi's murder if Wilmer hadn't just finished shooting Gutman up when the police arrived at Gutman's suite at the Alexandria Hotel. Cairo would certainly agree to testify against both defendants. He would probably leave the country, voluntarily or involuntarily, and return to Greece. It seems unlikely that he would have any thoughts of attempting to steal the real Maltese falcon from General Kemidov--although it might occur to him that he could provide Kemidov with some valuable information about the bird's history and offer to help him sell it for the maximum profit.
Incidentally, another suspect is Iva Archer. The reader may feel suspicious of this woman from the beginning. She has a good motive for killing her husband. She hates him, and she wants to marry Sam Spade. Even Spade seems somewhat suspicious of her. But her main function in the plot is to add another suspect to the mix. Dashiell Hammett intentionally plants suspicion in his reader's mind by having Effie Perrine ask:
"Do you suppose she could have killed him?....Suppose I told you that your Iva hadn't been home many minutes when I arrived to break the news at three o'clock this morning?"
And a bit later, Effie suggests Iva's possible motive:
"That louse wants to marry you, Sam," she said bitterly.