The Maltese Falcon | Study Guide

Dashiell Hammett

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The Maltese Falcon | Chapter 2 : Death in the Fog | Summary

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Summary

Spade's phone rings while he's asleep, and he learns Miles Archer is dead. He dresses and takes a taxi to the scene, where he is met by Sergeant Tom Polhaus. Polhaus shows Spade Miles's body and the muddy revolver he was shot with. He also points out that Miles's own gun was "tucked away on his hip" and "it hadn't been fired." Spade explains Miles was "tailing a fellow named Floyd Thursby." He tells Polhaus he will contact Miles's wife.

Spade calls Effie and tells her to call Miles's wife, Iva, and let her know what has happened. At 4:30 a.m., Lieutenant Dundy and Sergeant Polhaus show up at Spade's apartment. They are surprised to discover Spade doesn't even carry a gun. They try to find out more information from him about Thursby. Spade explains that Miles was tailing him on behalf of a client and refuses to say anything further. Dundy starts tapping Spade on the chest, explaining his theory that Spade could have murdered Thursby. Spade tells Dundy to keep his "God-damned paws off" of him. Dundy asserts there was enough time for Spade to leave the first crime scene and get to Thursby's hotel and murder him. Spade denies the theory, emphasizing he has never seen Thursby "dead or alive." The police leave.

Analysis

Early in this chapter Hammett takes an entire paragraph to describe in exact, realistic detail how Spade methodically rolls a cigarette, clearly an important part of his routine. Spade is a heavy drinker and smoker. When Spade gets back to his apartment, for example, he has three glasses of rum and smokes five cigarettes. After Dundy and Polhaus arrive, Spade drinks and smokes some more. His consumption of liquor and cigarettes are classic traits of a hard-boiled detective, reflecting his solitary, tough-guy persona. The details are important for establishing his role as a perfectionist of sorts who will take no nonsense from anyone and who exists in a self-created world where he sets all the boundaries, when he can.

In The Maltese Falcon language in a sense is just as important a weapon as a gun. Characters use language to manipulate and control others, and what they don't say is as important as what they do say. Criminals and the police need the same thing to succeed in their endeavors: information. Spade tries to keep the upper hand in any given situation by controlling the flow of verbal information. In this case his motivations are somewhat unclear. Is he trying to protect his new client, Miss Wonderly? Does he think the police suspect him of killing Thursby? Whatever his reasons, he agrees to tell the police some things while refusing to share others. He is not easily intimidated, either, as Lieutenant Dundy discovers when he fails to threaten Spade into spilling anything the police could use. Dundy admits, with some frustration, "We've told you more than you've told us."

Spade's words often serve to define or blur the boundaries between himself and others, depending on his needs at the time. He may be evasive with them about Thursby, but he draws a clear line between himself and the cops as he responds to the police defiantly, telling them to "turn the dump upside-down" and refusing to sit when Dundy tells him to by declaring, "I'll sit or stand as I damned please." His choice of words and short, sharp delivery characterize how Spade acts throughout the novel: he is quick to read and respond to whatever situation he finds himself in, and he shows a clear distrust and contempt for traditional authority. His use of language is one way in which he maintains control in his own world.

Body language is also important throughout The Maltese Falcon and performs a similar function to words. Throughout the novel Hammett repeatedly describes Spade's facial expressions, which Spade often uses to mask what he is thinking or feeling—another way to keep others in the dark. When the police arrive, Spade's face is "placid and uncurious," as if it doesn't matter to him that they've shown up at his apartment in the middle of the night. Later he makes "his eyes dull with boredom," and his face appears "stupid in its calmness." Spade controls his facial expressions as carefully as his words.

Spade's relationships with Dundy and Polhaus are both introduced in this chapter. Dundy is tough on Spade and clearly doesn't trust him, admitting he wouldn't hesitate to nail him for Miles's murder. Polhaus is friendlier toward Spade and tries to reason with him. He and Spade are confidants in the novel and work together in a less adversarial way than Dundy does. Effie's relationship to Spade is also demonstrated in this chapter. Effie is young and probably has a crush on Spade. He calls her "precious," "angel," and "a good girl" to cajole her into obedience, and she always complies, the loyal secretary. Effie and Polhaus represent characters who have an essentially positive relationship to Spade built on mutuality and trust, although Spade is clearly not above manipulating them for his own purposes.

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