Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*San Francisco

*San Francisco. California port city in which the novel is set. San Francisco is depicted as a dark and corrupt place, one in which protagonist and unsentimental private detective Sam Spade says that most things in San Francisco “can be bought or taken.” To emphasize the connection between the characters, particularly Spade, and the corrupt city setting, Spade refers to San Francisco as his “burg.” The fact that most of the story’s action occurs at night further emphasizes the dark side of society and human nature.

Spade’s apartment

Spade’s apartment. Home of Sam Spade on San Francisco’s Post Street, a well-appointed bachelor’s apartment with a sitting room, a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a separate entry foyer. Many significant scenes are set in the apartment. For example, Spade is there when he learns of his partner’s death through a late-night phone call and is later visited there by the police.

Spade appears to be comfortable and at ease when he is in his apartment, but it cannot be considered a completely safe haven. The police repeatedly appear there to harass him, and in one scene, a fight breaks out there between Brigid O’Shaughnessy and Joel Cairo. It is also the apartment in which Spade turns in Brigid, the woman he says he loves, to the police.

Spade’s office

Spade’s office. Private detective office on San...

(The entire section is 507 words.)

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Prohibition and Gangsters
Sale of alcohol had been illegal in the United States since 1920, when the 18th Amendment was ratified...

(The entire section is 535 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

While a traditional hero might be counted on to do the right thing for the common good, the protagonist of The...

(The entire section is 374 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In The Maltese Falcon, Hammett shifts locale from Red Harvest's (1929) small Western mining town to the cosmopolitan city of...

(The entire section is 191 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1930: It is considered acceptable and even friendly for an employer like Sam Spade to address an employee like Effie Perine with terms...

(The entire section is 195 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Research the development of detective work from the 1930s through today. How do the methods of a detective like Sam Spade relate to the...

(The entire section is 263 words.)

Techniques / Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Maltese Falcon is considered by most critics to be Hammett's best detective novel, although some literary experts prefer The...

(The entire section is 204 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Hammett's reputation as the grand master of the modern American detective novel is based on a creative period of no more than eleven years...

(The entire section is 545 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Many of Hammett's works were adapted as radio plays in the 1930s and 1940s; particularly popular were the series based on The Glass...

(The entire section is 257 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

The first screen adaptation of The Maltese Falcon was the film Dangerous Female (1931). It was directed by Roy Del Ruth and...

(The entire section is 294 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

Cuppy, Will, “Mystery and Adventure,” in New York Herald Tribune, February 23, 1930, p. 17.

Curtis, William, “Some Recent Books,” in Town & Country, February 15, 1930.

“Judging the Books,” in Judge, March 1, 1930.

MacDonald, Ross, Self-Portrait: Ceaselessly into the Past, Capra Press, 1981, p. 112.

Further Reading
Gregory, Sinda, Private Investigations: The Novels of Dashiell Hammett, Southern Illinois University Press, 1985. Coming from outside of the small, specific world of detective fiction, Gregory examines Hammett’s novels with the same critical eye that one might apply to the works of...

(The entire section is 200 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 234 words.)