The Maltese Falcon The Maltese Falcon
by Dashiell Hammett

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The Maltese Falcon

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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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...

(The entire section is 529 words.)