The Maltese Falcon

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Joel “Joe” Cairo Character Analysis

Casper Gutman’s employee, Cairo uses intimidation and deceit in his pursuit of the Maltese falcon. He, Floyd Thursby, and Brigid O’Shaughnessy worked together to steal the falcon from the Russian general Kemidov. Wearing perfume and jewelry, Cairo is described as very effeminate, and Sam Spade often insinuates that he is gay.

Joel “Joe” Cairo Quotes in The Maltese Falcon

The The Maltese Falcon quotes below are all either spoken by Joel “Joe” Cairo or refer to Joel “Joe” Cairo . For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Lies and Deceptions  Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Vintage edition of The Maltese Falcon published in 1992.
Chapter 4 Quotes

Diamonds twinkled on the second and fourth fingers of his left hand, a ruby that matched the one in his tie even to the surrounding diamonds on the third finger of his right hand. His hands were soft and well cared for. Though they were not large their flaccid bluntness made them seem clumsy.

Related Characters: Joel “Joe” Cairo
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we're introduced to one of the primary villains of the novel, Joe Cairo. Notice the way the passage emphasizes the tiny details of Cairo's appearance, almost as if we're seeing Cairo from Spade's point of view--i.e., the point of view of an experienced detective adept at picking up on tiny details. Cairo is described as being very effeminate, with his soft hands and pretty jewelry. His appearance contrasts markedly with Spade--Cairo is overtly womanish while Spade is aggressively masculine. Also note that the passage describes Cairo as an overtly foreign character--his rings and exotic name suggest Egypt, or the vague East.

It's been suggested that Cairo is supposed to be a queer character (though in Hammett's lifetime, it was more or less impossible to write about overt homosexuality). More generally, one could say that Cairo's effeminacy emphasizes the basic masculinity of Spade's worldview. Spade is a manly man--he drinks, has sex with beautiful women, smokes, etc. Many of the evil characters in the novel are either women or effeminate men--showing Hammett's rather sexist, homophobic (and in the case of Cairo, racist) worldview. He clearly prefers people with Spade's rugged, manly, all-American code of right and wrong.

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Chapter 7 Quotes

“And when you’re slapped you’ll take it and like it.” He released Cairo’s wrist and with a thick open hand struck the side of his face three times, savagely.

Related Characters: Sam Spade (speaker), Joel “Joe” Cairo
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Spade punishes Joe Cairo for slapping Brigid. Joe is angry with Brigid for bringing up a relationship between herself and a man in Constantinople. Spade is so angry that he slaps Joe, suggesting that Joe is a weak fool for hitting a woman. Spade's anger also suggests that he can't stand the knowledge that Brigid has been with another man recently--by this point in the novel, he's romantically interested in her.

The scene could be interpreted as politically incorrect, or even downright homophobic by modern standards. Seen one way, Spade is doling out a just punishment to the villainous Cairo; in a different sense, Spade is just bullying the effeminate Cairo for his own satisfaction (and, we sense, Hammett's). Perhaps Spade's behavior in the passage is meant to illustrate his blunt yet principled version of justice: if somebody hits a woman, he gets hit in return. Hammett acknowledges that Spade is "savage," but also seems to respect Spade for protecting Brigid and asserting his masculinity.

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Joel “Joe” Cairo Character Timeline in The Maltese Falcon

The timeline below shows where the character Joel “Joe” Cairo appears in The Maltese Falcon. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 4: The Black Bird
Lies and Deceptions  Theme Icon
Authority, Justice, and a Code of Ethics Theme Icon
Greed Theme Icon
Masculinity, Femininity, and Sexuality  Theme Icon
...Their conversation is interrupted by a stranger at the door who introduces himself as Joel Cairo. The narration describes Cairo as slender, dark skinned, wearing a lot of jewelry, and heavily... (full context)
Lies and Deceptions  Theme Icon
Greed Theme Icon
Cairo says he’s working for a man who is willing to pay Spade $5,000 if he... (full context)
Chapter 5: The Levantine
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Calm and steady, Spade puts his hands behind his head. As Cairo searches Spade for a weapon, Spade elbows Cairo in the cheek, tripping him and taking... (full context)
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Greed Theme Icon
When Cairo slowly wakes up, he tells Spade he only intended to search the office for the... (full context)
Chapter 6: The Undersized Shadow
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After Cairo leaves, Spade contemplates the offer and commits himself to searching for the statue. When Spades... (full context)
Lies and Deceptions  Theme Icon
Greed Theme Icon
Masculinity, Femininity, and Sexuality  Theme Icon
Love and Sex  Theme Icon
...protect her identity from the police. With the suspicion that she is somehow connected to Cairo’s mysterious appearance, Spade nonchalantly mentions Cairo and his offer about the statue. Frightened and upset,... (full context)
Chapter 7: G in the Air
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At Spade’s home, he and Brigid call the front desk at Cairo’s hotel, but the manager informs them that Cairo hasn’t yet returned to the hotel. As... (full context)
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...claiming she has complete trust in how he will handle her case. At that moment, Cairo knocks at the door and Spade lets him in. As Brigid and Cairo talk, Spade... (full context)
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Cairo then offends Brigid by making reference to a relationship between her and a young man... (full context)
Authority, Justice, and a Code of Ethics Theme Icon
...for insinuating that he was involved in Archer’s murder. As the cops prepare to leave, Cairo calls out in distress for the police. The chapter ends with Spade casually letting them... (full context)
Chapter 8: Horse Feathers
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Cairo, a gash over his eye, stands with a gun over Brigid as she huddles, terrified,... (full context)
Lies and Deceptions  Theme Icon
Authority, Justice, and a Code of Ethics Theme Icon
Masculinity, Femininity, and Sexuality  Theme Icon
...playing a practical joke on him. Spade claims that before answering the door, he told Cairo to call out to the police in order to get the police tense and nervous... (full context)
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Cairo and Brigid confirm that it was all a practical joke. Spade tells the police that... (full context)
Chapter 9: Brigid
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Masculinity, Femininity, and Sexuality  Theme Icon
...cursing nonstop for five minutes. After regaining his composure, Spade asks about what happened with Cairo. Brigid tells him she was trying to frighten Cairo in order to make him stay... (full context)
Lies and Deceptions  Theme Icon
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...again, Spade demands Brigid provide more information about herself. In response, Brigid tells Spade that Cairo offered to pay her once she stole the statue of the bird from a Russian... (full context)
Chapter 10: The Belvedere Divan
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Spade goes to Cairo’s hotel where he notices the young man who was shadowing him the previous day waiting... (full context)
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Twenty minutes after the young man leaves, Spade notices a disheveled Cairo returning to the hotel. Cairo tells Spade that the police have been interrogating him all... (full context)
Chapter 14: La Paloma
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Spade next heads to Cairo’s hotel where he meets up with Luke, the hotel detective, and together they search Cairo’s... (full context)
Chapter 16: The Third Murder
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...office an hour later in uncharacteristically high spirits. Effie tells him that Luke called about Cairo, and then she asks if he found Brigid. He kisses Effie on the nose and... (full context)
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...the La Paloma. From the interviews, Spade was able to piece together that Brigid, Gutman, Cairo, Wilmer, and Captain Jacobi of the La Paloma had all met onboard the ship the... (full context)
Chapter 17: Saturday Night
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...her belly with a metal pin. In garbled half-phrases, she manages to say that Gutman, Cairo, and Wilmer have taken Brigid to an address in Burlingame, a town twenty miles from... (full context)
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...they enter his apartment, the light suddenly turns on and Gutman along with Wilmer and Cairo, each holding guns, are waiting for them. (full context)
Chapter 18: The Fall-Guy
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Spade and Brigid enter the room and sit on the couch across from Gutman. Cairo and Wilmer lower their weapons and stand beside the couch. Gutman admits to the hoax... (full context)
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...kill Spade. Gutman calms Wilmer by telling Spade that his suggestion is simply too impractical. Cairo suggests that they give the police Brigid instead of Wilmer. Spade says that if they... (full context)
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...Wilmer, jabbing him in the face and taking his guns. In response for attacking Wilmer, Cairo feebly strikes at Spade but Spade easily pushes him off. Gutman agrees that Wilmer, who... (full context)
Chapter 19: The Russian’s Hand
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Not wanting to betray Wilmer, Cairo considers forgoing the pursuit of the bird, but Spade says if he does then they’ll... (full context)
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...fake, Gutman shouts in rage and Spade accuses Brigid of tricking them, but she and Cairo both claim that this statue was the same one they stole from Kemidov. In the... (full context)
Chapter 20: If They Hang You
Lies and Deceptions  Theme Icon
Authority, Justice, and a Code of Ethics Theme Icon
...calls Polhaus and lets him know that Wilmer killed Thursby and Jacobi on Gutman and Cairo’s orders. After hanging up, Spade tells Brigid that she needs to tell him her role... (full context)