Sam Spade, clearly the brains of the Spade and Archer detective agency, turns over to his plodding partner, Miles Archer, the case of a young woman client in whose presence he senses trouble. When Archer turns up dead not long thereafter, Spade is hardly surprised but proceeds to delve deeper into the case, uncovering a tangle of deceptions and false identities. The young woman’s real name, it seems, is Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and it is not long before Spade links her to an international ring of criminals competing among themselves for possession of a priceless treasure known as the Maltese Falcon.
Supposedly, the football-sized sculpted bird, encrusted with rare gems, has been stolen and repossessed many times during the four centuries of its existence; in Hammett’s hands, the unseen sculpture comes to symbolize the perpetuity of human greed, all the more so when the coveted object is unwrapped to reveal a worthless fake.
Central to the action is Spade’s increasing involvement with Brigid O’Shaughnessey, whose deviousness and native intelligence compare favorably with his own. Spurning the affections of Iva Archer, who had been his mistress before her husband’s death, Spade proceeds to fall in love with Brigid even while evidence suggests that she is in some way responsible for Miles Archer’s murder.
As Spade proceeds to unravel the mystery, he encounters a memorable assortment of professional criminals, including the manipulative adventurer Casper Gutman and the blatantly homosexual Joel Cairo. Faced at last with the inescapable fact of Brigid’s guilt, Spade incongruously but plausibly chooses honor over love, turning her over to the authorities even as she is kissing him; as he explains, he “may or may not” be waiting for her when she gets out of prison.
Chandler, Raymond. The Simple Art of Murder. New York: Ballantine, 1972. This interesting essay by another famous American hard-boiled mystery writer discusses the shortcomings of the traditional British mystery novel and the advances in the genre inspired by Hammett. Chandler and Hammett are credited with being the fathers of the modern American mystery novel.
Layman, Richard. Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981. The best available biography of Dashiell Hammett, who led a colorful life and resembled Sam Spade in his moral code and unsentimental view of human nature. Discusses the genesis of The Maltese Falcon, Hammett’s most acclaimed novel, in detail.
Marling, William. Dashiell Hammett. Boston: Twayne, 1983. Contains a thorough discussion of Hammett’s life and art, with considerable attention to The Maltese Falcon. Excellent reference notes and selected bibliography.
Nolan, William F. Dashiell Hammett: A Casebook. Santa Barbara, Calif.: McNally & Loftin, 1969. A book about Hammett’s life and writing by an author who has established a reputation as an authority on American crime fiction in general and on Dashiell Hammett in particular. Discusses The Maltese Falcon thoroughly.
Wolfe, Peter. Beams Falling: The Art of Dashiell Hammett. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Press, 1980. An author who has specialized in the study of hard-boiled crime writers presents full-length analyses of Hammett’s stories and novels. “Beams Falling” alludes to the much-debated “Flitcraft Episode” in The Maltese Falcon.