The Maltese Falcon (novel)

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The Maltese Falcon
First edition cover
Author Dashiell Hammett
Country United States
Language English
Genre Detective
Published 1929 (Alfred A. Knopf)
Media type Print (hardcover)
Preceded by The Dain Curse
Followed by The Glass Key

The Maltese Falcon is a 1929 detective novel by Dashiell Hammett, originally serialized in the magazine Black Mask beginning with the September 1929 issue. The story has been adapted several times for the cinema. The main character, Sam Spade, appears in this novel only and in three lesser known short stories, yet is widely cited as the crystallizing figure in the development of the hard-boiled private detective genre. Raymond Chandler's character Philip Marlowe, for instance, was strongly influenced by Hammett's Spade. Spade was a departure from Hammett's nameless detective, The Continental Op. Sam Spade combined several features of previous detectives, most notably his cold detachment, keen eye for detail, and unflinching determination to achieve his own justice. The novel contains a considerable amount of homosexual subtext concerning Wilmer Cook and Joel Cairo (Cairo is also referred to as the "Levantine"), all of which was excised, due to Production Code restraints, from the 1941 film version starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, the best known of three films between 1931 and 1941 about Hammett's novel. The briefly-seen character of Rhea Gutman, who has no backstory, does not appear in either the 1931 or 1941 film.

In 1998, the Modern Library ranked The Maltese Falcon 56th on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.


Private detectives Sam Spade and Miles Archer are hired by an attractive young woman, "Miss Wonderly" to follow a man, Floyd Thursby, who has allegedly run off with Wonderly's younger sister, Corinne. Spade and Archer take the assignment because the money is good, but neither man believes her story and Spade implies that she looks like trouble.

That night, Spade receives a phone call telling him that Archer is dead. When questioned by Sgt. Polhaus about Archer's activities, Spade says that Archer was tailing Thursby, but refuses to reveal their client's identity. Later that night, Polhaus and Lieutenant Dundy visit Spade and inquire about his recent whereabouts, and say that Thursby was also killed and that Spade is a suspect. They have no evidence against Spade, but tell him that they will be conducting an investigation into the matter.

The next day, Archer's wife Iva, with whom Spade earlier had an affair, asks Spade if he killed Miles. He tells her to leave, and coolly tells his young secretary Effie Perine, with whom he has a more complicated relationship than either will acknowledge, to remove "Spade & Archer" on the office door and have it replaced with a simple "Samuel Spade". Visiting his client at her hotel, he learns her real name is Brigid O'Shaughnessy, she never had a sister, and Thursby was an acquaintance who had betrayed her. Spade tells her that he and Archer never believed her story.

Later, Spade is visited by Joel Cairo, who offers Spade $5,000 if he can retrieve a figurine of a black bird that has recently arrived in San Francisco. Cairo suddenly pulls a gun, declaring his intention to search Spade's office, but Spade knocks him unconscious. When O'Shaughnessy contacts Spade, he senses a connection between her and Cairo, and casually mentions that he has spoken to Cairo. O'Shaughnessy becomes nervous, and asks Spade to arrange a meeting with Cairo. Spade agrees.

When they meet at Spade's apartment, Cairo says he is ready to pay for the figurine, but O'Shaughnessy says she does not have it. They also refer to a mysterious figure, "G", of whom they seem to be scared. As the two begin to argue, Polhaus and Dundy show up, but Spade refuses to let them in. As they are about to leave, Cairo screams, and they force their way in. Spade says that Cairo and O'Shaughnessy were merely play-acting, which the officers seem to accept. But they take Cairo with them to the station. Spade tries to get more information from O'Shaughnessy, who stalls.

Spade confronts and instantly dislikes a young man named Wilmer Cook, telling him that his boss, "G", will have to deal with Spade. He later receives a call from Casper Gutman ("G"), who wishes to meet him. Gutman opens their conversation with whiskey and says he will pay handsomely for the black bird. Spade bluffs, saying he can get it, but wants to know what it is first. Gutman refuses to offer any more information than that it is of unimaginable value. Spade leaves, only to be summoned to visit Gutman again later in the day. Spade disarms Wilmer before this next meeting, where Gutman tells him that the figurine was a gift from the Knights of Malta to the King of Spain, but was lost in transit. It was covered with fine jewels, but acquired a layer of black enamel to conceal its value.

Gutman had been looking for it for seventeen years. He traced it to Russian general Kemidov, and sent O'Shaughnessy to Constantinople to attempt to buy it. Kemidov, led to suspect its value from Gutman's interest in it, refused to sell. O'Shaughnessy then recruited Cairo, a shady figure who inhabits the Levantine underworld, and the two stole it from Kemidov. (They later realized that Kemidov made the theft suspiciously easy, but suspected nothing at the time.) O'Shaughnessy, now set on keeping the falcon to herself, used the story that she feared a double-cross by Cairo to recruit a new partner: Floyd Thursby, an American gunman who fled the U.S. to avoid going to prison. She and Thursby ditched Cairo by having him arrested for passing a fraudulent check. While he was in jail, they left for Hong Kong.

While listening to Gutman's version of this story, Spade realizes that his whiskey has been drugged. Wilmer, described in the book as a "tiny fisted boy", is boiling with rage because Spade got the better of him and took his pistols in the hallway and has treated him with contempt throughout. When Spade starts to fall to the floor from the knockout drops Gutman put in his whiskey, Wilmer trips him to send him sprawling. Spade passes out and Wilmer kicks him violently in the temple as he and Gutman depart.

After Spade returns to his office, Captain Jacobi of the La Paloma arrives, drops a package on the floor, and then dies, having been shot numerous times. Spade opens the package, and finds the falcon. He receives a call from O'Shaughnessy, asking for his help. He stores the item at a bus station luggage counter and mails himself the collection tag. At the dock, the La Paloma is on fire. He goes to the address O'Shaughnessy gave him, and finds a drugged girl, Gutman's daughter Rhea, her stomach scratched by a pin to keep her awake. She gives him information she has been fed but it is a false lead that takes him to Burlingame on a goose chase.

When he and O'Shaughnessy, whom he meets outside his apartment building, return to his apartment, Wilmer, Cairo, and Gutman are waiting. Gutman gives Spade $10,000 for the bird. Spade takes the money, but demands details about the murders and, to divide the gang, says they will need a "fall guy" to give the police to take the blame for the murders. Cairo and Gutman eventually agree to give him Wilmer, as he demands since he already has Wilmer's guns which will match the bullets that killed Thursby and Jacobi. Gutman warns Spade not to trust O'Shaughnessy. Spade calls Effie and asks her to pick up the figurine where he stored it (a locker at a bus terminal), and she brings it to Spade's apartment. Spade gives it to Gutman, who checks and quickly learns it's a fake. He realizes that Kemidov must have discovered its true value and substituted a copy. Wilmer escapes. Gutman regains his composure, and announces that, although this has been a small setback, he intends to continue his quest for the falcon. Gutman asks Spade for the $10,000. Spade keeps $1,000 for expenses. Cairo and Gutman leave.

Immediately after Cairo and Gutman leave, Spade phones Sgt. Polhaus, telling him that Wilmer killed both Thursby and Captain Jacobi, and that Gutman, the man who gave the orders, is in a hurry to leave San Francisco. Spade uses the impending arrival of the police to confront O'Shaughnessy, whom he realizes is the one who murdered Archer, to admit to and explain why. She says she hired the detectives to scare Thursby. When Thursby refused to be scared away, she took one of his guns — a very distinctive Webley, an English make — and approached Archer, who had no suspicions of her, in an alley where he was trailing Thursby and killed him at point-blank range. She left the Webley at the scene to pin the crime on Thursby.

When Thursby was killed, she knew that Gutman must be in town, so she came back to Spade for protection. She now begs Spade to protect her from the law. (She and Spade have slept together in an earlier episode, and she believes that this has created a bond between them that she can exploit to her advantage.) However, Spade refuses: he is a detective, she killed his partner, and turning her in to the law has become a matter of honor. Spade points out that O'Shaughnessy, being an attractive woman and a gifted actress, may persuade a prosecutor and jury to let her off with a 20-year sentence, and he tells her he will wait for her. But if she is hanged, he sardonically adds, he will always remember her. She begs him not to turn her in and talks about their love for each other, but he replies that he has no choice, as otherwise the police will assume his guilt, which could mean the gallows. When the police arrive, Spade turns over O'Shaughnessy. The police tell Spade that Wilmer was waiting at the hotel and killed Gutman when the latter arrived. Spade is not surprised.

Spade continues business as usual, although his secretary Effie Perine, whose woman's intuition had assured him that Miss Wonderly (O'Shaughnessy) was honest and trustworthy, is disappointed to learn that she was simply an unscrupulous adventuress. She tells Spade not to touch her. She knows he was right to do what he did but she tells him she needs some time, presumably to process all that has happened. As the story ends, Perine tells Spade that Iva Archer is waiting for him.


Although Hammett himself worked for a time as a private detective for the Pinkerton Detective Agency in San Francisco (and used his birth name "Samuel" for the story's protagonist), Hammett called Spade "a dream man" with "no original". As the author wrote of the character in 1934:

Spade has no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been, and, in their cockier moments, thought they approached.[1]

Hammett reportedly drew upon his years as a detective in creating many of the other characters for The Maltese Falcon, which reworks elements from two of his stories published in Black Mask magazine in 1925, "The Whosis Kid" and "The Gutting of Couffignal".[2] The novel itself was serialized in five parts in Black Mask in 1929–30 before being published in book form in 1930 by Alfred A. Knopf.


The novel has been filmed three times, twice under its original title:

In addition, there have been many spoofs and sequels, including The Black Bird (1975), a spoof film, featuring George Segal as Sam Spade, Jr. Elisha Cook Jr. and Lee Patrick reprised their roles from the 1941 film.


  1. Introduction to The Maltese Falcon (1934 edition)
  2. Dashiell Hammett. "Introduction to The Maltese Falcon (1934 edition)". Retrieved April 15, 2007.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Hardyment, Christina (November 24, 2001). "John Gielgud: An actor's life. Written and read by Gyles Brandreth". The Independent. London, UK. Retrieved September 3, 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon". BBC. Retrieved September 3, 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Herron, Don. The Dashiell Hammett Tour: Thirtieth Anniversary Guidebook. San Francisco: Vince Emery Productions, 2009.
  • Layman, Richard. Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3: The Maltese Falcon. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 2000.
  • Layman, Richard, ed. Discovering The Maltese Falcon and Sam Spade: The Evolution of Dashiell Hammett's Masterpiece, Including John Huston's Movie with Humphrey Bogart. San Francisco: Vince Emery Productions, 2005.
  • Miller, Walter James. Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon: A Critical Commentary. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.
  • Stone, Dan. An Introduction to The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett: Audio Guide. Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts, 2006.

External links