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The Maltese Falcon | Themes

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Hammett's themes often illustrate opposing ideas that pull back and forth at each other like a tug of war. These polarizing ideas pit the novel's characters against each other.

The Hard-Boiled Detective

Sam Spade is one of the first hard-boiled detectives to appear in fiction, and he lives up to the definition of the term. A hard-boiled detective is tough, cynical, and no-nonsense—a so-called manly man. His clients come first and foremost, and he will fight to get the job done for them. The hard-boiled detective raises some important questions for readers. Is his moral ambiguity justifiable? How can a good man be so bad, or is it the other way around? Is he a model of masculinity or an example of its limitations? Is his cynical view of the world around him entirely accurate?

There is a whiff of tragedy around the hard-boiled detective, who is often world-weary from having witnessed too much of the dark side of human nature in the form of betrayal, greed, deception, and murder. Cynical and unsentimental, Spade sees the world for what it is: cruel, corrupt, and dangerous. The only moral code he trusts, for better or worse, is his own. Fittingly the hard-boiled detective is often a solitary guy. Because he sees the world so clearly Spade believes, not without reason, that he can understand and manipulate whatever context he finds himself in. However, this does not come without risk to himself. He often has to tough out damage and loss alone. In Chapter 18 he asserts, "I've had to tell everybody from the Supreme Court down to go to hell," and he struggles with having Brigid arrested at the end of the novel, likely losing a chance at actual love.

Hard-boiled detectives are antiheroes, and they demonstrate some decidedly immoral tendencies. Spade is a morally ambiguous character, riding a razor-thin line between right and wrong, and he is not afraid to get his hands dirty if it gets results. He resorts to violence if necessary, choking Joel Cairo and smashing Wilmer Cook's hands. He plays clients against each other to make more money and is not aboveboard with the police, for whom he has contempt. And because he can attract women effortlessly with his sexual charisma, he uses this attraction to manipulate them for his own ends, such as cheating with his partner's wife to spite him. He's a heavy drinker and smoker, too, though it doesn't seem to cloud his thinking or slow his punch.

Finally an important aspect of the hard-boiled detective's persona is the way he speaks. Whether he sounds gruff, flippant, or bitter, Spade lets off a series of sharp one-liners that show how he always knows the score. "Everybody has something to conceal," he remarks, summing up the world of the novel, which is filled with deception and lies. When Brigid O'Shaughnessy tells Spade he's bad, "worse than [he] could know," Spade responds, "Oh, it's all right. Only it wouldn't be all right if you were actually that innocent. We'd never get anywhere."

Deception

Deception is a way of life in The Maltese Falcon, many of whose characters are criminals who lie, cheat, steal, or kill to get what they want. They form alliances and either trick each other or work as partners to trick someone else. The result is a shifty world in which it is hard to tell what is true or false from moment to moment, or whom to trust.

Brigid O'Shaughnessy, for example, is practiced in the art of deceit. Her sexuality is her weapon, which she uses to get what she wants and to keep others from knowing the truth about her schemes. A habitual liar, every story she tells Sam Spade proves to be untrue, from the alias she uses when she first meets him (as Miss Wonderly) to her role as a cold-blooded murderer. She also lies about her partnerships. At various times she is either working behind the scenes with a partner like Thursby or Cairo, or she is doing something behind their backs and not letting them know. For example, when she gets her hands on the Maltese falcon, she gives it to Captain Jacobi in Hong Kong so that Cairo and Gutman don't find out. In Chapter 9 Brigid complains to Spade that she is tired "of lying and thinking up lies" and not being able to distinguish "what is a lie and what is the truth," but she continues her scheming until the bitter end, unable to stop manipulating reality to her advantage.

It makes sense that criminals are deceptive in this way, but almost everyone else in the novel is also deceptive to some degree. In fact there is a broad spectrum of deceit in The Maltese Falcon. On the low end of this spectrum are characters who help Sam Spade, like the hotel clerks and hotel detectives who offer information to him on the sly, such as a guest's whereabouts. Sam Spade's secretary, Effie Perine, trusts her boss completely. When he tells her to lie for him, she does so without hesitation. On the opposite end of the spectrum are ruthless, sadistic Casper Gutman, who will sell out his closest companions to save himself, and Brigid O'Shaughnessy, a femme fatale who shoots Spade's partner Archer in cold blood. Spade himself is a morally ambiguous figure who lands somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

Manipulating reality is key to creating a successful deception. What characters know or do not, say or choose not to say, dictates how much power they have in any given situation. Spade, for example, never stops scanning whatever situation he is in, deciding what to withhold or share with others in order to gain some kind of advantage. As a private investigator, it is incumbent upon him to sometimes mask the truth in order to obtain information. He is not lying to hurt anyone but to uncover the truth, and he does a fine job of seeing through the deceptions of others, like Brigid's seductions. However, Spade is very talented at manipulating the truth himself.

Spade's method is to control the flow of information—when it is concealed and when it is revealed. It is often difficult to discern not only what he knows but also when he knows it. Spade changes his facial expressions at will, going blank so others can't read how he is thinking or feeling: "His face did not indicate that he was thinking about anything." Spade can lie quite effortlessly, as he often does to the police, to cover his actions or the actions of his sketchy clients. In Chapter 7 he brings Cairo and Brigid to his apartment so he can learn more about the statuette, but when the police show up unexpectedly and want to come inside, he lies to them about the fact that Brigid and Cairo are there. Lieutenant Dundy mistrusts Spade, and rightly so: "You've got away with this and ... that, but you can't keep it up forever," he warns, but Spade continues his successful deceptions.

Sometimes Spade is deceptive purely for personal gain, too. As the novel opens he is having an affair with Iva, his partner's wife. Later he plays off two clients against each other to see who will give him more money and attempts to cut a shady, but lucrative, deal with the villainous Gutman for the Maltese falcon statuette. Readers are challenged, throughout the novel, to decide when Spade goes too far with his deceptions, developing sometimes an uncomfortable resemblance to some of the criminals he pursues.

Femme Fatale

When she can't offer Sam Spade a lot of money to help her find the Maltese falcon, Brigid O'Shaughnessy makes a different offer: "Can I buy you with my body?" The quintessential femme fatale, Brigid is a seductive woman with a hidden agenda, and she leads to nothing but trouble for the men who fall under her spell. Brigid pretends to be helpless and vulnerable to secure male protection, then ruthlessly manipulates the man for her own ends. And Brigid is resourceful: if one strategy fails she will try another, like sleeping with her prey to distract him from learning the truth. Like a clever author herself, she can juggle multiple plot lines, carrying out multiple deceptions at the same time.

The Maltese Falcon often relies on gender stereotypes to represent sexuality. Along with Cairo, whose homosexuality is linked to his criminality in a derogatory fashion in the novel, Brigid's promiscuity represents a deficit, not an asset. This is a classic double standard. There is no male cultural equivalent for the femme fatale, who symbolizes the fear of female sexuality as a dangerous, deadly force. Spade's use of his sexuality to control the women in his life is not always presented as admirable, but it also enhances his masculinity, adding to his charisma as a hard-boiled detective and therefore a male icon. Brigid's sexuality does not enhance her character in a positive way. On the contrary it makes her appear as a cold, callous man-eater, and it is not surprising that she turns out to be the villain of the piece.

Brigid and Spade are caught between their feelings for each other and the reality of their situation. He is a detective trying to uncover the truth, and she is a criminal trying to cover her crimes. Spade hands Brigid over to the police for the murder of Miles Archer but admits he may love her, saying, "You'll be out again in twenty years. You're an angel. I'll wait for you." Brigid says she loves Spade, but she is such a twisted woman it is hard to know whether her love for him is genuine. Right up to the end the femme fatale is someone who cannot be trusted.

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