The Maltese Falcon | Study Guide

Dashiell Hammett

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The Maltese Falcon | Chapter 18 : The Fall-Guy | Summary



Spade tells Gutman his daughter's body is "too nice to be scratched up with pins." Spade explains he has the falcon and knows they sent him to Burlingame to stall for time so they could stop Jacobi before he got to Spade's office. He asks Gutman when he can "make the first payment and take the falcon off my hands?" Gutman responds by throwing an envelope at Spade's chest. Spade sees there is only $10,000 inside and says, "We were talking about more money than this." Gutman replies, "There are more of us to be taken care of now." Spade states he has the falcon, to which Cairo replies, "We certainly have you."

Spade then explains the police will need a fall-guy for the two murders, and he suggests they give Wilmer to Bryan, the district attorney. Gutman doesn't like the idea, and Wilmer threatens Spade with a pistol. Spade comes up with a Plan B, which is to make Cairo the fall-guy, and a Plan C, which is to give the police Brigid. Cairo tells Spade he is "not in a position to insist on anything." Spade angrily replies, "If you kill me, how are you going to get the bird?" Cairo whispers something to Gutman, then they both grab Wilmer. Spade punches the boy in the chin and slaps Cairo's face, grabbing both of their guns. Spade threatens to "turn the falcon and the whole God-damned lot of you" over to the police. Gutman sighs and says, "You can have him," referring to Wilmer.


Gutman hands Spade a lot less money than he had promised. Gutman cannot be trusted as he is driven by greed and not honor. This is a man who drugged his own daughter and would not hesitate to kill for what he wants. He is Spade's nemesis, and it is never clearer than here as Spade stands up to Gutman and tries to call his bluff in a final act of negotiation.

Hammett uses third-person objective narration to high effect in the interchange between Spade and Gutman. Without stating what either man thinks, their words, tone, and body language convey a great deal. Spade has the statuette and is strong and resolute despite being surrounded by men with guns. At one point he shouts at Gutman, "Like hell I must." The narrator describes these words as "flung ... with a brutal sort of carelessness that gave them more weight" than volume or "dramatic emphasis" could have achieved.

Spade is unafraid, but Gutman is not one to back down either. Gutman's eyes twinkle, and he chuckles as he responds to Spade's claim that if he is killed they won't be able to find the bird. Gutman is described as cocking his head as "his eyes twinkled between puckered lids," and his answer is delivered in a genial manner: "There are other means of persuasion besides killing." Gutman's genial way of speaking makes what he says in this chapter exceptionally disturbing because his tone does not match the very serious discussion of who is going to be sacrificed as the fall-guy, nor does his declaration of affection for Wilmer. He says he feels "towards Wilmer just exactly as if he were my own son. I really do." But he is quickly persuaded to sacrifice Wilmer as the fall-guy.

Spade wants to give the police a fall-guy so they will stop investigating the murders and to clear his own name. Or at least that's the way it appears. Spade is at the tipping point of his moral ambiguity, the moment at which he will have to go one way or the other. It is not clear if Spade will hand over Wilmer and take a large amount of cash from Gutman in exchange for the falcon, or do the right thing and implicate everyone and not take any money. Whether Spade's sense of honor and morality come into play will be revealed in the final chapter.

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