The Maltese Falcon | Study Guide

Dashiell Hammett

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The Maltese Falcon | Chapter 20 : If They Hang You | Summary



Five minutes after the three men leave, Spade calls Polhaus. Spade tells him he has the guns Wilmer used to kill Thursby and Jacobi and lets him know where he can find all of them. Then he turns to Brigid and tells her they have to get their story straight before the police come after them. She confirms Gutman sent her to Constantinople, and she met Cairo there. She didn't trust him, so she asked Thursby to help her and they got the bird from Kemidov and went to Hong Kong. There she gave the falcon to Captain Jacobi to bring back. She was afraid Gutman might turn Thursby against her, so she hired Spade to watch Thursby. Spade calls her a liar because "you had Thursby hooked ... He was a sucker for women." Brigid changes her story and says she thought Thursby might get scared if he knew he was being followed. Spade says Miles was too smart to let Thursby see him, so Brigid must have tipped him off. She admits to warning him.

Spade tells Brigid that Thursby did not kill Miles—she did. Miles would not have followed Thursby into an alley with his gun buttoned inside his coat. She denies it, and then Spade grabs her wrists but she breaks loose and puts her arms around him, saying, "I didn't mean to." Spade calls that another lie and tells her he knows she shot Miles with Thursby's gun. That meant Thursby was killed by Wilmer, under Gutman's order, which is why she turned to Spade for protection. Spade tells her he's turning her over to the police even though he thinks he loves her, adding he is "not Thursby. I'm not Jacobi. I won't play the sap for you." She double-crossed Gutman, Cairo, and Thursby and "never played square" with Spade. Brigid touches Spade and asks him not to hurt her and just let her go instead of turning her in. But he won't do it, and he needs to avenge his partner's murder.

The police arrive and say they've caught the others. Spade tells them Brigid killed Miles, and he gives them the $1,000 bill he got from Gutman, calling it bribe money. Polhaus reveals Wilmer killed Gutman before they arrived, and Spade says, "He ought to have expected that." The novel ends with Spade back in the office on Monday morning and the arrival of Iva.


Spade shows that Brigid is a liar and manipulates men, giving him no reason to trust her. He is also avenging Miles's death by giving her to the police. Brigid assumed what she thought was love would protect her and Spade wouldn't hurt her in the end. But she was wrong. Spade chooses to do the right thing by turning in all of the murderers, including Brigid, forgoing his usual moral ambiguity for once. He doesn't even keep the $1,000 Gutman gave him.

This display of honor is rather unexpected. Critic David Kelly writes Spade has kept his sense of honor "hidden throughout" the novel. Hammett gives us a glimpse of Spade's struggle between honor and love in the way he describes Spade as he accuses Brigid of murder, how Spade's "yellow-white face was damp with sweat ... he could not hold softness in his voice." In the end the tough detective embraces honor and duty over love or profit.

The novel still has plenty of ambiguities left for readers to ponder, however. Spade tells Brigid to not "be too sure I'm as crooked as I'm supposed to be." Has his decision to turn her and the others in changed him into a more virtuous man, or is this another instance in which it is hard to know who Spade really is? How will he behave after the novel is over? Brigid asks him, "Would you have done this to me if the falcon had been real and you had been paid your money?" If Spade is so honorable, he would have responded that of course he would turn her in because it is the right thing to do. Instead Spade responds by asking, "What difference does that make now?" He dismisses the question and its implications entirely.

Then there is the question of when Spade realized Brigid killed Miles. He certainly has worked out exactly what happened in his mind. He recalls finding the receipt for the apartment she rented as a crucial clue several chapters before, but it remains unclear when and how he put all the pieces together. When did he know she slept with him just to keep him for asking questions, for example?

There is also the question of whether Brigid or Spade are really in love it all. As he puts it, "All we've got is the fact that maybe you love me and maybe I love you." For Spade love itself is ambiguous and unknowable: "It's easy enough to be nuts about you. ... But I don't know what that amounts to. Does anybody ever?" In any case that may not matter in the end because as Spade declares, "I don't care who loves who I'm not going to play the sap for you." Whether he loves her or not, he is sure about one thing: he will not be manipulated like the other men Brigid has tricked. In the end Spade appears to remain faithful to his own personality more than anything else: the solitary detective with razor-sharp instincts who is nobody's fool, hard-boiled to the end.

Effie, who always acts honorably and selflessly with Spade, putting his needs before her own, cannot accept what Spade did. When he tells her about Brigid, he puts his arm around her. Effie screams, "Don't touch me ... You're right. But don't touch me now." She doesn't see Spade's turning in Brigid to the police as being unproblematic. While she may not have been right about Brigid (as Spade's comment "so much for your women's intuition," suggests), Effie speaks from the heart and often acts as Spade's moral compass. Even if he did the right thing by turning Brigid into the police, in Effie's eyes he seems to reject love, a decision that for her would be contemptible. Her opinion matters to Spade. In a rare moment of showing his emotions in an unfiltered way, "Spade's face became as pale as his collar." Spade is usually the object of desire for women in the novel. Effie is the only woman who rejects him, and he feels it.

The novel ends with Iva Archer's arrival to see Spade, closing the circle after her early visit to his office in Chapter 3. Spade reacts with a shiver. This is very telling. Does the shiver mean Spade accepts that his fate is to end up with Iva and not someone mysterious and alluring like Brigid? The critic David Kelly reasons Spade may realize there is no escape, and "he, like Flitcraft, will end up with Iva or someone like her."

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