The Maltese Falcon | Study Guide

Dashiell Hammett

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The Maltese Falcon | Chapter 1 : Spade & Archer | Summary

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Summary

The Maltese Falcon is set in San Francisco in the 1920s. It takes place over a five-day period. The office secretary, Effie Perine, a tall girl with brown eyes and a boyish face, tells her boss a beautiful woman is waiting in his office to see him. Sam Spade, a private eye with a long chin, pale hair, and the look of "a blond satan," responds, "Shoo her in, darling."

Miss Wonderly, a new client, is ushered in. She tells Spade her sister is missing after leaving New York for San Francisco with a man named Floyd Thursby. Spade's partner, Miles Archer, walks into the office and is taken with Miss Wonderly's attractive appearance as Spade fills him in on the case. Miss Wonderly warns them that Thursby is "a dangerous man." She requests that either Spade or Miles follow Thursby at eight o'clock that night when she is supposed to meet him because she is so afraid. She offers them $200, and Miles agrees to do the job himself.

Analysis

Dashiell Hammett uses a third-person objective narrator to tell the story. For this reason readers must analyze people and events in the novel based on what its characters do and say rather than their internal thoughts or feelings, relying on dialogue and description. This is a particularly intriguing literary device to use because the characters in this story deceive and lie to each other so often. This objective narration leaves readers uncertain of what's true and what is not true in the novel. In this sense readers resemble detectives, trying to piece the truth together from the disparate evidence the novel presents.

Spade's attitude toward women is established in this opening chapter. He calls Effie "sweetheart" and "darling," and the first thing Effie tells her boss about Miss Wonderly is about her physical appearance ("she's a knockout"). When Miles Archer arrives he gives Miss Wonderly an "appraising gaze" then "ma[k]e[s] a silent whistling mouth of appreciation." After she leaves Miles and Spade joke about who gets dibs on her first. Women in early hard-boiled fiction are typically treated as sexual objects, mirroring the culture of the time during which Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon. The sexualized portrayal of the women in the novel also serves to emphasize Spade's masculinity by highlighting his sexual magnetism, an important part of his allure as a hard-boiled detective.

Miss Wonderly acts nervous ("her lips trembled"; "her hands mashed the dark handbag in her lap"). She appears vulnerable, stammering and blushing as she pleads for Spade's help. But her detailed explanation of her sister's disappearance is not what it seems. Readers will later learn she often makes false statements to conceal the truth, and her real reason for involving Miles in this little intrigue is actually quite sinister. Her emotional storytelling hides her real motivation for having Thursby followed as well as her true involvement in the case. The seeds of deceit have already been planted in Chapter 1.

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