The Maltese Falcon | Study Guide

Dashiell Hammett

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The Maltese Falcon | Chapter 4 : The Black Bird | Summary

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Summary

Spade goes to Miss Wonderly's apartment, where she tells him she has a "terrible confession to make." The story she told him the day before was not true. Spade says he and Miles didn't believe her anyway. She tells Spade she is really Brigid O'Shaughnessy. She asks Spade if the police know about her, and he assures her they do not. She begs Spade to protect her and drops to her knees, confessing she has not "lived a good life ... I've been bad ... Help me." Spade tells her she doesn't need help because she is "very good. It's chiefly your eyes ... and that throb you get into your voice."

Spade asks what happened the night before, and she says she and Thursby took a walk, had dinner, and went back to the hotel. Then Thursby left, and Miles followed him. She learned about the murders in the morning paper. She moved to an apartment because her hotel room had been searched. Spade wants to know more about her relationship with Thursby. Brigid says she met him in Hong Kong but he took advantage of her. She decided to have him followed "to find out what he was doing." Spade asks if he killed Miles, and she answers "Yes, certainly ... He had a revolver in his overcoat-pocket." Then he asks who killed Thursby, and she says she doesn't know. Spade gets frustrated and asks her what she wants. She begs him not to tell the police about her. Spade asks how much money she has, and she gives him another $400. He tells her he will see what he can do and leaves.

Spade goes to see Sid Wise, a lawyer. He asks him if he can "hide behind the sanctity of my clients' secrets and identities." Sid answers, "Why not?" Spade wants to make sure he is safe, so they go to "see the right people." Spade returns to his office at 5:10, and Joel Cairo appears. Effie lets Spade know he "is queer," likely meaning homosexual. Spade describes him as Levantine, or Middle Eastern. He has shiny black hair, tight clothes, a ruby tie clip and matching ring, two diamond rings, and patent-leather shoes. He smells like a famous citrus perfume. He asks Spade if the deaths of Miles and Thursby are related, but Spade doesn't answer. Cairo then asks Spade if he can help recover "the black figure of a bird." He offers him $5,000 in exchange for the bird, "no questions will be asked." Effie says goodnight and leaves. Cairo pulls out a gun and tells Spade to put his hands behind his neck.

Analysis

Brigid reveals her real name and that she has been bad, but not much else. She gives Spade few details about her relationship with Thursby. She remains a mysterious figure, and Spade is drawn to her by the offer of more money as much as her sexual allure. Spade's greed—in fact the greed of most of the characters—is at the root of much of the deceit and lies in the novel. His interest in making more money, like his affair with Iva and his general treatment of women, also demonstrates Spade's moral ambiguity. He is a detective, not a policeman, so he is more loyal to his client than he is to law and order. No pure-minded hero, Spade is willing to get into the gutter and get his hands dirty if it personally benefits him.

Brigid tries hard to work her femme fatale magic on Spade. Her main tactic is to appear as a victim, vulnerable and in need of male protection. "I want you to save me from—from it all," she begs. As she makes her case she nervously stammers, pleads, cries, blushes, shivers, bites her lip, and looks "at him with frightened eyes." She claims Thursby "took advantage of [her] helplessness and dependence on him" to betray her.

Brigid, ever manipulative and seductive, also tries to tantalize Spade by playing the bad girl who wants to be good. She confesses that she's "been bad—worse than you could know," only to turn around and say, "You know I'm not all bad, don't you? ... Then can't you trust me a little? ... I've got nobody to help me." On the one hand she is "bad," which also implies she is sexually experienced and available. On the other hand she is "not all bad" and frightened and alone, which she hopes will appeal to his protective male instincts. He can be a big, strong man who saves her from danger. Like Spade, Brigid can be morally ambiguous if it helps her get what she wants, establishing an odd similarity between them.

Brigid has lots of stories to tell, and not everything she says is untrue, but her honesty is always in question. Her neatly pinning Miles's death on Thursby is just one of the many convenient lies she tells. As the novel proceeds Spade will be faced with deciding what if anything she tells him is actually true. When she gets down on her knees and begs him to protect her, Spade is aware it's an act and tells her so. It is early in the novel, but he already understands Brigid is someone who is capable of deceit and lies, telling her he and Miles knew she was lying when she came to his office in Chapter 1. He clearly enjoys the advantage it gives him to be able to catch Brigid in the act of trying to manipulate him.

The character Joel Cairo is introduced, and his unusual attire, heavy perfume, and mincing steps lead Effie to proclaim him as a homosexual. The Maltese Falcon has often been criticized for such stereotypical portrayals of gay men as effeminate, with their fancy clothes, jewelry, and perfume, and their feminized gestures, like Cairo's sitting "primly" and speaking "in a high-pitched voice." In the novel such characterization serves as a counterpoint to Spade's stereotypical manliness, represented by his tough talk, defiant insistence on having things his way, and his attractiveness to women. Cairo's effeminacy makes Spade's masculinity stand out all the more.

Cairo is the first person to mention the existence of "the black bird." This bird is none other than the elusive "Maltese falcon" and not only the title of the book but also the major symbol holding the plot together and connecting all of the main characters. Everyone wants to get their hands on the bird at any cost.

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