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The Maltese Falcon  
first edition cover (1930).
Author Dashiell Hammett
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Detective fiction
Publisher Alfred A. Knopf
Publication date 1930
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Followed by "A Man Called Spade"
"They Can Only Hang You Once"
"Too Many Have Lived"

The Maltese Falcon is a 1930 detective novel by Dashiell Hammett, originally serialized in the magazine "Black Mask". The story has been adapted several times for the cinema. The main character, Sam Spade, appears only in this novel 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 and less than glamorous 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. He is the man who has seen the wretched, the corrupt, the tawdry side of life but still retains his "tarnished idealism".



Private eye Sam Spade and his partner Miles Archer are hired into service to a woman who calls herself Miss Wonderly to follow a man, Floyd Thursby, who has allegedly run off with her underage baby sister. Spade and Archer take the assignment because the money is good. Spade also implies that the woman looks like trouble, though she projects wholesome innocence.

That night, Spade is awakened by police detective Tom Polhaus, who informs Spade that Archer has been shot, killed and left at the bottom of a dead-end street. Spade knows that Archer was supposed to be tailing Thursby and tells Polhaus this when questioned about Archer's activities but refuses to reveal the identity of their client. Much later that night, Polhaus and his partner Lieutenant Dundy visit Spade at his apartment and inquire about Spade's whereabouts in the last few hours. The officers say that Thursby was also killed and that Spade is a suspect, since Thursby likely killed Archer. They have no evidence against Spade at the moment, but tell him that they will be conducting an investigation into the matter.

The next day, Spade gets a visit from Archer's wife Iva, with whom he has been having an affair. She asks Spade if he killed Miles so that they could be together. Spade dismisses her and tells her to leave, and coldly orders his secretary Effie Perine to remove all of Archer's belongings from the office. He then goes to a new address left in a note from his client, whose real name he learns is Brigid O'Shaughnessy. He also finds out that O'Shaughnessy never had a sister, and Thursby was her acquaintance who had betrayed her.

Later, Spade is visited by another man, Joel Cairo, who offers Spade $5,000 if the private eye can retrieve a figurine of a black bird that has recently arrived in San Francisco. While Spade has no idea what the man is talking about, he plays along. Suddenly, Cairo pulls a gun on Spade, and declares his intention to search Spade's office. But when he approaches Spade to search his person, Spade disarms him and knocks him unconscious. After cataloguing Cairo's belongings and questioning him in return, Spade returns Cairo's firearm and allows the man to search his office. Following this, Spade is again contacted by Brigid O'Shaughnessy. She offers her sympathies for the death of his partner. Spade senses a connection between O'Shaughnessy and Cairo, and casually mentions that Cairo has contacted him. O'Shaughnessy becomes extremely nervous when she hears this, telling Spade that she must see Cairo and asking Spade to arrange a meeting. Spade agrees.

Cover of the magazine "Black Mask", September 1929, featuring part 1 of its serialization of The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett. The illustration is of detective Sam Spade by Henry C. Murphy, Jr.

When Cairo and O'Shaughnessy meet at Spade's apartment, they make references that the reader and Spade don't initially comprehend. Cairo says he is ready to pay for the black figurine. O'Shaughnessy, however, says she does not have it at the moment. They also refer to a mysterious figure, "G", whom they seem to be scared of. The two then continue to talk about some events that happened overseas. Eventually, O'Shaughnessy insinuates that Cairo is a homosexual, and Cairo insinuates that O'Shaughnessy simply uses her body to get what she wants. Soon after the two begin to fight, the police show up at the apartment, coincidentally, to talk to Spade. Spade greets them at the door but refuses to let them in. The officers say they know Spade was having an affair with Archer's wife; just as they are about to leave, they hear Cairo screaming for help. They force their way into Spade's apartment, but Spade invents a story about how Cairo and O'Shaughnessy were merely play-acting. The officers seem to accept, if not believe, Spade's story, but they take Cairo with them down to the station for some "grilling." Spade then tries to get more information from O'Shaughnessy, but she sleeps with him rather than tell him anything.

The next morning, Spade makes his way to the hotel where Cairo is staying. Cairo shows up disheveled, saying that he was held in police custody through the night. Meanwhile, Spade notices that he's being tailed by a kid named Wilmer Cook. He eventually confronts the gunsel[1], and tells him that both he and his boss, "G," will have to deal with him at some point. He later receives a call from Casper Gutman, who wishes to meet with him. Gutman, a grossly obese man, says he will pay handsomely for the black bird. Spade bluffs, implying that he can get the item, but wants to know what it is first.

Gutman tells him that the figurine was a gift from the island of Malta to the King of Spain a few hundred years ago, but was lost on ship in transit. It was covered with fine jewels, but acquired a layer of black enamel at some time to conceal its value (estimated to be in the millions). Gutman learned of its whereabouts seventeen years ago, and has been looking for it ever since. He traced it to the home of the Russian general Kemidov, then sent three of his "agents" (Cairo, Thursby and O'Shaughnessy) to retrieve it. The latter pair supposedly did steal the figurine, but learned of its value and decided to keep it for themselves. Spade starts to get dizzy at this point (Gutman has drugged him), and when he goes to leave, Wilmer trips him and knocks him out by kicking his temple.

Bebe Daniels as Brigid O'Shaughnessy in the 1931 film adaptation

When Spade awakens, he returns to his office and tells the story of the Maltese Falcon to Effie. Soon afterwards, an injured man, identified as Captain Jacobi of "La Paloma," shows up at the office; he drops a package on the floor and then dies from his gunshot wounds. Spade opens the package, and finds the figurine falcon. Spade is called away from the office. To prevent losing the item, Spade stores the package at a bus station lost luggage counter and mails himself the collection tag. He first goes to the dock where "La Paloma" was anchored, but learns that a fire had been started on board. He then proceeds to the place Rhea Gutman said she was when she phoned earlier. There he finds a drugged-up, seventeen-year old girl, her stomach all scratched up by a pin in her attempt to keep herself awake. She just manages to give him some information about the whereabouts of Brigid, which turns out to be a false lead.

When he arrives back at his apartment, he finds O'Shaughnessy in a shadowy doorway. Inside, Wilmer, Cairo, and Gutman are there waiting. Gutman hands Spade $10,000 in cash in exchange for the bird. Spade takes the money, but in addition says that they need a "fall guy" to take the blame for the murders of at least Thursby and Jacobi, if not Archer as well. Reluctantly, both Cairo and Gutman agree to make Wilmer the fall guy. Gutman proceeds to tell Spade the missing pieces of the story. The night that Thursby was killed, he was first approached by Wilmer and Gutman. The latter attempted to reason with him, but Thursby remained loyal to O'Shaughnessy and refused to cooperate. Later things escalated, then Wilmer shot Thursby. Also, O'Shaughnessy had seduced Captain Jacobi and hid the Falcon with him. Later, O'Shaughnessy instructed Jacobi to deliver the package to Spade. Once Gutman learned of this fact, he attempted to remove Spade from the situation with the spiked drink. Wilmer managed to shoot the captain, but Jacobi still got to Spade's office to deliver the figurine. After finishing his story, Gutman warns Spade to be very careful with O'Shaughnessy as she is not to be trusted.

Bette Davis and Warren William in Satan Met a Lady (1936), a loose adaptation of The Maltese Falcon

Spade places a call to his secretary Effie and asks her to go the office and pick up the figurine. Effie brings it to Spade's apartment, and Spade hands the package to Gutman, who is overwhelmed with excitement. He checks the figurine, but quickly learns that it is a fake. He realizes with dismay that the Russian must have discovered the true value of the falcon and made a copy. During this time, Wilmer manages to escape from Spade's apartment. Gutman quickly regains composure, and decides to go back to Europe to continue the search. Before he leaves, Gutman asks Spade for the $10,000. Spade returns $9,000, saying he's keeping the remainder for his time and expenses. Then Cairo and Gutman leave Spade's apartment.

Immediately after Cairo and Gutman leave, Spade phones the police department and tells them the entire story. Wilmer killed Jacobi and Thursby. He also tells them what hotel Gutman is staying at and urges them to hurry, since Gutman and Cairo are leaving town soon. Afterwards, Spade angrily asks O'Shaughnessy why she killed Archer. At first, O'Shaughnessy acts horrified at this accusation, but seeing that she cannot lie anymore, she drops the act. She wanted to get Thursby out of the picture so that she could have the falcon for herself, so she hired Archer to scare him off. When Thursby didn't leave, she killed Archer and attempted to pin the crime on Thursby. When Thursby himself was later killed, she knew that Gutman was in town and that she needed another protector, so she came back to Spade.

However, she says that she's also in love with Spade and would have come back to him anyhow. Spade coldly replies that the penalty for murder is most likely twenty years, and he'll wait for her until she gets out. If they hang her, Spade says that he'll always remember her. He goes on to say that while he despised Archer, the man was his partner, and that he's going to turn her in to the police for his murder as that was a line he could not cross in the industry of detective work. O'Shaughnessy begs him not to, but he replies that he has no choice. When the police get Gutman, Gutman will finger Spade and O'Shaughnessy as accomplices. Thus the only way Spade can avoid getting charged is to say he played both sides against each other. He tells O'Shaughnessy that he has some feelings for her, but that he simply can't trust her. Just before the police arrive, O'Shaughnessy asks Spade if the falcon had been real, and he'd gotten the entire $10,000, would it have made a difference. Spade replies that, while she shouldn't be so sure that he's crooked, more money would have been one more item on "her side."

When the police finally show up at Spade's apartment, Spade immediately turns over O'Shaughnessy as Archer's killer. They tell Spade that Wilmer was waiting for Gutman at the hotel and shot him when he arrived. Spade also hands over the $1,000 bill and the falcon to the police as evidence.

Later, when Spade arrives back at the office, he tells Effie the entire story. She asks Sam if he sent O'Shaughnessy to jail. He replies, "Your Sam's a detective." She is disgusted by his actions, and asks him not to touch her. The novel ends when Archer's widow Iva again shows up at the office.


In this novel, Hammett redefines many of the conventions of the "hard-boiled" detective genre. Spade is a bitter, sardonic character who lets the police and the criminals think he is in with the criminals while he works singlemindedly to catch the crooks. Brigid O'Shaughnessy is the classic femme fatale. The other crooks are manipulative and self-centered (or merely self-centered) with no concern for anyone's well-being except their own.

However, unlike some other hard-boiled detectives who have a strong sense of idealism underneath the cynical shell, Hammett never provides a clear statement of Spade's notion of morality. Spade attempts to explain himself to Brigid O'Shaughnessy with the Flitcraft parable, in which Hammett makes an oblique reference to the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, but O'Shaughnessy has no idea what he is getting at.

At the time of Miles Archer's death, Spade is having an affair with Archer's wife, and while he does the "right thing" in the end, catching and turning in Archer's murderer, his reasons for doing so are somewhat ambiguous. Although he expresses a strong professional ethic ("When a man's partner is killed he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it") it also has an element of self-interest about it ("[W]hen one of your organization gets killed it's bad business to let the killer get away with it. It's bad all around - bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere"). It is left unclear whether Spade might have chosen not to turn Brigid in if there was a bigger monetary gain for him ("...a lot more money would have been one more item on your side"), but certain that his emotional attachment to her (however strong that is) is not sufficient to overcome the risks involved with letting her go. Spade's blatant calculus of risk, reward and duty with which Hammett ends the novel contains remarkably little trace of morality.

The Maltese Falcon itself is a good example of a MacGuffin,[2] in that it serves as motivation for several of the character's actions but has little other significance.

The writing style is unusual in that the reader is told what each character does and says, but no-one's inner thoughts are ever revealed.


Fellow San Francisco crime writer and former private eye Joe Gores recently wrote Spade & Archer (2009), a prequel to The Maltese Falcon. The novel investigates in richer detail the back stories of Sam Spade, his partner Miles Archer and other memorable characters from the original story. Gores was able to secure permission from Jo Marshall, Hammett's daughter, and Julie Rivett, Marshall's daughter and Hammett's granddaughter, to write the book. Although Marshall first refused, the Hammett family later changed their mind because they felt that Gores was the right person to tell the story, primarily because he was a crime writer and a former San Francisco private investigator, just like Hammett. According to Rivett, "[Gores] walked the walk as well as he talked the talk. He knows as well as anyone where those characters came from."[3]. The Los Angeles times, in a February 09, 2009 review of the book stated that "Gores is far and away the best candidate to pull off such a risky endeavor" and the novel "comes with admirable distance of a ... prequel that, paraphrasing one of the novel's villains, gets to take Sam Spade apart and see what makes him tick" [4].


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

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

  • The Maltese Falcon (2005), the first authorized stage adaptation, was produced by The Long Beach Shakespeare Company, and premiered on April 29, 2005. Hammett's book was adapted and directed by Martin Pope. The stage adaptation was authorized and approved by Julie M. Rivett, Dashiell Hammett's granddaughter. Both Jo Hammett, Dashiell Hammett's only living daughter, and Julie Rivett attended the premiere. The play follows the book closely and includes Spade's Flitcraft story. Two years later, in the Fall of 2007, the same company mounted a second adaptation, this one by Helen Borgers, the company's Artistic Director. Three other adaptations had been attempted before 2005, but none of these saw production.
  • The Maltese Falcon (2007), adapted by Borgers, opened in Huntsville, AL on the AlphaStage of the Renaissance Theatre on Wednesday, April 2, 2008 in association with the Huntsville Public Library's "Big Read" Initiative. Directed by Jim Zielinski, the play was part of the weeks of Falcon-related events scheduled for the area. An additional, final run took place May 15-17, capping off the "Big Read" activities.


  1. ^ Erle Stanley Gardner claims that gunsel - meaning "gun-carrying hoodlum", previously meaning "young, inexperienced homosexual" - took on its new connotation because of Hammett's book.
  2. ^ Dirks, Tim. "Movie Review: "The Maltese Falcon"". Retrieved 2008-02-15.  
  3. ^ Kara Platoni, Stanford Magazine, "Sleuth or Dare: How Joe Gores recreated Sam Spade",]
  4. ^ Sarah Weinman, Book Review: 'Spade and Archer' by Joe Gores, Feb. 09, 2009,
  5. ^ "John Gielgud: An actor's life. Written and read by Gyles Brandreth". The Independent. November 24, 2001. Retrieved September 3, 2009.  
  6. ^ "Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon". BBC. Retrieved September 3, 2009.  

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