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The Maltese Falcon | Plot Summary

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Summary

The Maltese Falcon is set in San Francisco in the 1920s. Sam Spade is a private investigator with a tough, no-nonsense approach and a violent temper. He has an eye for the ladies and drinks and smokes excessively.

The New Client

Miss Wonderly, a new client, visits Sam Spade at his office. She says that her sister is missing after arriving in San Francisco with a man named Floyd Thursby. Miss Wonderly warns him that Thursby is dangerous. Spade's partner, Miles Archer, agrees to follow Thursby. That evening Spade receives a phone call that both Archer and Thursby are dead. Spade goes to see Miss Wonderly, and she confesses that the story she told him the day before was not true and her real name is Brigid O'Shaughnessy. Spade asks what happened that night, and she says that she and Thursby took a walk, had dinner, and went back to the hotel. Then Thursby left and Archer followed him. She learned about the murders in the morning paper.

The Black Bird

Spade returns to his office. Joel Cairo appears and asks Spade if he can help recover "the black figure of a bird"—the Maltese falcon. He offers him $5,000 in exchange for the bird, "no questions will be asked." Effie Perine, Spade's secretary, says goodnight and leaves. Cairo pulls out a gun. Spade lifts his elbow and strikes Cairo in the face, knocking him unconscious and taking his gun. When Cairo wakes up, Spade tells him that he does not have the black bird and asks who the statuette's owner is. Cairo doesn't say, but he offers Spade a $200 retainer to locate the bird and $5,000 when he obtains the statuette.

Spade goes to see Brigid and tells her that he just saw Cairo. Brigid becomes frightened and uneasy, surprised that Spade knows him. Spade says Cairo offered him $5,000 to find the bird. Brigid tells Spade she doesn't have that kind of money, then adds, "Can I buy you with my body?" Spade kisses her roughly "and contemptuously." Brigid says she needs to talk to Cairo but she is afraid of him. Spade says they can meet at his place.

Cairo and Brigid greet each other, and Brigid asks him how soon he can have the money ready for the statuette. Cairo says he has the cash now. Brigid tells him that she doesn't have the falcon but will in about a week. Cairo asks what happened to Thursby, and Brigid traces a letter "G" in the air. After he leaves Spade asks Brigid about the falcon that everyone is looking for. She describes the bird as "smooth and shiny ... a hawk or falcon" about a foot high. She was promised money by Cairo if she would help find it, and then she was offered more money from Thursby. Brigid divulges that the falcon was owned by "a Russian named Kemidov." Then she learned that Cairo was going to take the bird after she and Thursby found it. So she and Thursby took the falcon first, but he didn't pay her the money promised. That's why she decided to hire Spade, "to get you to help me learn where the falcon was." Spade suggests she stay with Effie, where she'll be safe.

Casper Gutman calls and requests that Spade come to his hotel. Spade is greeted at the door by the boy who has been following him. Gutman offers Spade whiskey and a cigar and they talk. Spade won't say who he represents—Brigid, Cairo, or himself. Gutman asks if he knows "how much money can be made out of that black bird," realizing that Spade doesn't know the bird's real value. Gutman asks what Cairo is willing to pay for the bird, and Spade says $10,000.

Spade returns to his office and Effie tells him that Brigid never showed up at her house. Spade finds the taxi driver who was going to take Brigid there and asks where he took her instead. First they stopped to buy a copy of the newspaper, the Call. Then he dropped her at the Ferry Building. Spade gets a copy of the paper and reads it but doesn't see anything unusual. He notices Gutman's boy in the doorway of his office building. Gutman wants to see Spade. Spade grabs the boy by the wrists, crushing his hands until his arms go limp. Spade pulls two guns out of the boy's pockets. The boy had been holding a gun in each hand.

When Spade arrives at Gutman's apartment he hands him the boy's two guns. Over cigars and whiskey, Gutman tells Spade the long and complex history of the black bird. It dates back to Emperor Charles V of Spain. The emperor gave crusaders living in Crete the lands of "Malta, Gozo, and Tripoli." In return the crusaders had to give the emperor one falcon every year. The crusaders, or knights, were very wealthy, and instead of giving the emperor a real bird they opted for a "golden falcon encrusted from head to foot with the finest jewels." This jeweled bird never made it to Emperor Charles and for centuries changed hands without anyone realizing its true worth because the bird had been "painted or enameled over to look like ... a fairly interesting black statuette." Gutman explains that he had been searching for the falcon for 17 years before finding it in the home of a Russian general. He assumes Brigid has it, and Spade says he has her "safely tucked away." Gutman offers Spade two deals: $50,000 now or 25 percent of its worth in a few months. Suddenly Spade realizes that he has been drugged during this time, and Gutman calls for his boy, Wilmer Cook, who trips Spade. When Spade crashes to the ground the boy kicks him in the temple.

The Package

Spade tells Effie that Brigid went to the ship called La Paloma and ate with Captain Jacobi. Then Gutman, Cook, and Cairo showed up. A fight broke out and a gunshot was heard. They all left at midnight, and the captain never returned to the ship. Just then a seven-foot-tall man walks into the office. His left arm has a claw on the end, and he is holding a package. He walks in, falls forward, and blood spurts out of his mouth. He drops the package as he falls to the floor and dies. Spade unwraps the package and sees "the foot-high figure of a bird, black as coal and shiny."

Spade tells Effie to call the police about the dead body. He leaves and takes the package with him. He goes to Pickwick Stage terminal and leaves the bird in the Parcel Room. He mails the check for the package to a post office box number. Spade goes to Effie's house, and she confirms that the dead man was Captain Jacobi. Spade goes home, and as he unlocks his door Brigid appears. When he turns the light on Gutman, Cook, and Cairo are waiting for him, holding guns. Spade explains that he has the falcon. Spade 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." Spade explains that the police will need a fall-guy for the two murders, and he suggests they give Cook to Bryan, the district attorney.

They all spend the night in the living room, and Effie delivers the falcon the next morning. Gutman opens the package and scrapes the edge of the statuette, but "black enamel came off ... exposing blackened metal beneath." The bird is a fake! Brigid swears that this is the bird she got from Kemidov, the Russian. Gutman, undaunted, vows to "go to Constantinople" and visit the Russian, and Cairo agrees to go with him. Gutman demands the envelope back from Spade, but Spade explains that he held up his end of the bargain and delivered the bird. Gutman holds up a jeweled pistol and takes back all of the money except for a $1,000 bill that Spade keeps to cover his "time and expenses." Gutman, Cook, and Cairo leave and Brigid is left behind with the fake bird "as a little memento."

The Truth Revealed

Five minutes after the three men leave, Spade calls Sergeant Polhaus. Spade tells him that he has the guns Cook used to kill Thursby and Jacobi and lets him know where he can find all of them.

Spade and Brigid are now alone. He tells Brigid that he knows she killed Archer. She denies it and puts her arms around Spade, saying, "I didn't mean to." Spade tells her that she is lying. He explains that he also knows Thursby was killed by Gutman. Spade tells her he's turning her over to the police even though he thinks he loves her. Brigid touches Spade and asks him not to hurt her and just let her go instead of turning her in. But he refuses.

The police arrive and say they've caught the others. Spade tells them that Brigid killed Archer and gives them the $1,000 bill he got from Gutman, calling it bribe money. Polhaus reveals that Cook killed Gutman before they arrived.

Back at the office Spade tells Effie the truth about Brigid. Effie cannot accept that Spade turned Brigid over to the police. The novel ends with the arrival of Iva, Archer's widow.

The Maltese Falcon Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action

Introduction

1 Miss Wonderly hires Spade and Miles to follow Thursby.

Rising Action

2 Thursby and Miles are both murdered.

3 Brigid admits to Spade that Miss Wonderly is her alias.

4 Cairo asks Spade to help him find a falcon statuette.

5 Brigid, Cairo, and Spade come to blows.

6 Brigid tells Spade she also seeks the statuette.

7 Brigid and Spade have sex.

8 Spade agrees to get the statue for Gutman for a fee.

9 Spade is drugged by Gutman and beaten by Wilmer.

10 Jacobi gives Spade the statuette, then dies in his office.

Climax

11 Spade persuades Gutman to let Wilmer take the fall.

Falling Action

12 Everyone discovers that the statuette is a fake.

13 Spade tells the police Brigid killed Miles.

14 Wilmer kills Gutman.

Resolution

15 Wilmer and Brigid are arrested.

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