The Maltese Falcon | Study Guide

Dashiell Hammett

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The Maltese Falcon | Chapter 8 : Horse Feathers | Summary

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Summary

The police enter the apartment when they hear Cairo's scream. Brigid is in the armchair and Cairo is standing over her, holding a gun. He is bleeding from his forehead. Brigid claims he attacked her, but Cairo says she is lying. Dundy wants to know why Cairo is there, and Cairo explains he was sent for then attacked by both Spade and Brigid. Brigid says that's a lie and slaps Cairo. They argue, but Spade remains calm. Spade introduces Brigid to the police as his operative, which Cairo then refutes. Spade says Cairo is a friend of Thursby's and they were questioning him about the killings of Miles and Thursby.

When the police threaten to bring them all in for questioning, Spade explains this has all been a joke. Cairo explains he cut his forehead as the result of an accidental fall. Dundy listens and dismisses this as nonsense, saying "horse feathers." Spade sticks to his story that "everything we told you was part of the joke." He calls Dundy a sap, and Dundy punches Spade in the chin. After more arguing the police and Cairo leave. Spade keeps Cairo's gun by explaining it is really his.

Analysis

Spade, Cairo, and Brigid all struggle to control the version of events they present to the police. Brigid and Cairo are deceptive people, but Spade outdoes them with his quick and dirty fabrications. First he acts detached, as if he had nothing to do with Cairo's bleeding forehead. Then he claims Cairo seemed suspicious to him, so he "wouldn't touch" the job Cairo offered him ("find something Thursby was supposed to have on him"). Spade says Cairo pulled a gun on him but forgets to mention he was strangling Cairo at the time. Later in the chapter he changes his story and tells Dundy and Polhaus it was all a joke.

Brigid gets in on Spade's act, claiming Cairo attacked her—she wounded him because she had to defend herself. Cairo says they both attacked him, which is at least close to the truth, but he mentions nothing about the altercation with Brigid that started it. When Spade tells him the police will take them all in if he lodges a complaint, Cairo changes his story entirely. Dundy's question to Brigid, "What do you want us to think the truth is?" could apply to the entire novel, which is riddled with lies, deceit, and betrayals caused by characters trying to persuade others to go along with their version of the truth.

Gruff, fearless, and clever, Spade believes he can pull off anything, including the elaborate lie he tells the police, by sizing up the situation and thinking on his feet. Not only is Spade a man of action, he is always the smartest man in the room. Due to his considerable foresight, he knows, for example, that if Cairo lodges a complaint with the police he, Spade, and Brigid will all be taken in and questioned, which isn't good for any of them. With his swaggering confidence and ability to control the situation, Spade is the quintessential hard-boiled detective. But what does it say when Spade is just as capable of deception and lies as the criminals in the novel? Spade may be an antihero, or a protagonist who doesn't reflect traditional heroic qualities, but his lies often strain the capacity of readers to see him as more of a good guy than a bad one. In Chapter 8 he lies outright several times—more extensively than he has at any previous point—adding yet another layer to his moral ambiguity.

The tension and animosity between Brigid and Cairo are also obvious. They are adversaries, and it seems unlikely they can work together. Perhaps part of the tension between them is caused by the fact that Brigid cannot use her sexuality to control Cairo. Brigid is a femme fatale, but her feminine powers are inert with Cairo, who is portrayed as being a homosexual.

He is not interested in her seductive powers, which is how she manipulates the men around her.

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