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George Kelley Paperback & Pulp Fiction Collection

The Maltese Falcon

cover image By: Hammett, Dashiell (male)
Publisher: Dell Publishing Co., Inc. (5175)
Place of Publication: New York, NY
Catalog #: Kelley Box 265: PS3515 .A4347 M2 1966
Contributor: M. Brower


Era: 1930s Author as on Cover: Dashiell Hammett Geographic Locale: San Francisco, California Date of Publication: 1966  |  Original Date: 1930 Setting: urban Motives: various frame-ups lead to murder

Plot Summary

Private detective Sam Spade and his partner Miles Archer are hired by a beautiful client who calls herself "Miss Wonderly" to find her sister. Archer agrees to follow the man whom the sister is supposed to be traveling with, Floyd Thursby, and in the process, Archer is murdered. Shortly afterward, Thursby is also murdered, and Spade becomes the prime suspect in both crimes. Spade starts to hunt for his partner's killer, beginning with his mysterious client, Miss Wonderly. After telling him that her name is actually Brigid O'Shaughnessy, she informs him that Thursby was Archer's killer. Spade is skeptical, but agrees to help her by tracking down Thursby's killer. Spade soon finds himself with another client: a foppish man named Joel Cairo, who eventually offers him $5,000 to locate a statuette of a valuable black bird. Once more the trail leads back to Brigid O'Shaughnessy. She tries to cut herself in on the deal, since she knows where the bird is. Business is booming for Sam Spade: the next day he finds himself with yet another client, a Mr. Gutman, who tells him a fascinating story about the provenance of the black bird -- the Maltese Falcon. The statuette had a long and bloody history that apparently ended in Hong Kong; O'Shaughnessy and Thursby, hired by Gutman to acquire the bird for him, had decided to keep it for themselves and had taken it there. Spade believes that O'Shaughnessy knows the whereabouts of the bird; unfortunately, he doesn't know hers. In looking for her, he uses his detecting skills to determine that she has gone to meet La Paloma, a ship arriving from Hong Kong. By the time Spade reaches La Paloma, the ship is burning, and Jacobi, her captain, has disappeared. So have O'Shaughnessy, Cairo, Gutman, and Wilmer, the young man who's been tailing Spade throughout the story. Spade returns to his office and relates the events to his secretary, Effie Perine; as he's doing that, the ship's captain, bloody and dying, providentially staggers through the door and drops the Maltese Falcon at Spade's feet. Spade realizes that the quartet he's been searching for can't be far behind. Sure enough, they show up together at his apartment later that evening, demanding the falcon. Spade refuses to turn it over unless they provide a fall guy for the murders of Archer, Thursby, and Jacobi. After much tortured discussion and a little bit of violence, it's decided that Gutman's gunsel, Wilmer, will take the fall. Spade agrees to hand over the bird, but has to wait until morning, when he can have Effie deliver it. In the final exchange, it is discovered that the bird is a fake. Cairo and Gutman depart on another quest to find the real Maltese Falcon, taking Wilmer with them and leaving Spade to handle Brigid O'Shaughnessy. He does so by calling the police, having determined that she was the only one who could have shot Miles Archer. With all the loose ends tied up, Spade is left to tackle what may be his most unpleasant task -- dealing with his dead partner's widow.

Major Characters

Sam Spade adult male, in his 30s, tall, with "yellow-grey" eyes, thick brows, a hooked nose, and pale brown hair growing down from a point on his forehead -- " a blond satan." A private investigator, in business with Miles Archer and probably involved in a romantic relationship with Archer's wife, Iva

Miles Archer adult male, 40s, ("....apparently as many years past forty as Spade was past 30..."), solidly built, jowly, short greying hair. A private investigator, in business with Sam Spade, married to Iva, but not averse to extramarital dalliances

Brigid O'Shaughnessy adult female, claims to be 22 years old but may be older, blue eyes, dark red hair, long-legged and very beautiful. Seems to be a con artist by trade; uses everything she's got to get what she wants from people -- her sexuality with men, feminine sympathy with women

Effie Perine adult female, young, tall, lanky, and "boyish," with brown eyes and a sunburn; Spade and Archer's secretary

Joel Cairo adult male, possibly homosexual or bisexual, small-boned, shorter than Spade, black hair, wears lots of jewelry and cologne

Caspar Gutman adult male, possibly homosexual or bisexual, older, extremely obese, dark eyes, curly dark hair

Wilmer Cook adult male, possibly homosexual or bisexual, quite young, small and fair, hazel eyes



Level of Violence

fairly casual and off-handed. Sam is not above slapping Brigid when he feels like it. He frequently disarms Cairo, Gutman, and Wilmer in a necessarily violent manner.


Brigid offers to "buy" Spade with her body; he uses a sexual encounter with her as an opportunity to search her apartment.

Gender Roles

women are drawn well in The Maltese Falcon. Effie Perine is smart, sensible, and also sensitive; Brigid O'Shaughnessy is ruthless and cold, using her sexuality to get what she wants from men. While Effie's "Girl Friday" and Brigid's "femme fatale" are certainly familiar types in the genre, both characters are multi-dimensional and go a little beyond type. Iva Archer is dismissed by Hammett the same way she's dismissed by Spade. The male characters are also interesting. Sam Spade is a "man's man" who clearly has a well-defined opinion of what masculinity requires. Joel Cairo is presented as effeminate and yet possibly heterosexual. Wilmer, on the other hand, is as masculine as Spade but may be a homosexual, if one accepts the idea that Hammett used the word "gunsel" as it would have been used at the time: to describe a young man who is "kept" by an older one (suggested by E.J.M. Duggan, The Maltese Falcon FAQ 3 ). In that scenario, Gutman would be the older man.


Joel Cairo is described as "Levantine" and carries a Greek passport. Other characters are seemingly generic Americans without any indication of ethnic background (unless one wants to say that Brigid O'Shaughnessy -- if that is her real name -- may be of Irish ancestry).

Alcohol/Drug Abuse

Spade is rarely far from a drink, and alcohol is used casually. Even the police detectives drink while on duty.

Law Enforcement

Detective-Sgt. Polhaus is portrayed as a fairly sympathetic colleague. Lt. Dundy is not as intelligent as Spade; he is aggressive, suspicious of Spade, and violent.

Subject Headings

California - San Francisco/ Detectives, Private/ Spade (Sam)/ Murder

Psychological Elements

Spade, the prototype of the hard-boiled detective, has a skewed sense of humor: he feels a duty to track down his partner's killer while at the same time he has no qualms about sleeping with the partner's wife or joking about his death.

Film Adaptations

The Maltese Falcon (a.k.a. Dangerous Female), 1931, Warner Bros.; The Maltese Falcon, 1941, Warner Bros.