The Maltese Falcon explores the importance of a personal code of ethics in a world of incompetent authorities and an imperfect criminal justice system. Throughout the novel, Samuel Spade calls into question the police’s ability to apprehend the right criminals. Without any substantial evidence, Lieutenant Dundy changes from thinking that Spade killed Floyd Thursby to thinking that he killed Miles Archer. Spade even mocks District Attorney Bryan for concocting an unsupported mob-war motive for Thursby’s murder.
In contrast with the police, Spade works outside the limits of the law, getting justice by deceptive means. Although Spade will sleep with his partner’s wife and lie to catch the criminals, he maintains a strict code of ethics. Spade’s decision to hand Brigid O’Shaughnessy over to the police shows that his desire for justice outweighs, for him, even the possibility of finding love. Spade also risks provoking the police when he refuses to divulge his client’s personal information because doing so would be against his personal code (though it’s also possible to argue that Spade withholds this information for other reasons, such as wanting to prevent the police from mishandling the case).
While Spade feels he has done the right thing by turning in Brigid, the novel ends with Effie Perine, Spade’s assistant, feeling disgust at him for betraying the woman he loves. Effie’s reaction illustrates the limitations of justice, specifically how justice cannot always exist alongside loyalty to loved ones.
Authority, Justice, and a Code of Ethics ThemeTracker
Authority, Justice, and a Code of Ethics Quotes in The Maltese Falcon
“Keep that grunsel away from me while you’re making up your mind. I’ll kill him. I don’t like him. He makes me nervous. I’ll kill him the first time he gets in my way. I won’t give him an even break. I won’t give him a chance. I’ll kill him.”
My clients are entitled to a decent amount of secrecy. Maybe I can be made to talk to a Grand Jury or even a Coroner’s Jury, but I haven’t been called before either yet, and it’s a cinch I’m not going to advertise my clients’ business until I have to.”
“And my only chance of ever catching them and tying them up and bringing them in is by keeping away from you and the police, because neither of you show any signs of knowing what in hell it’s all about.”
He stepped back holding it up in front of him and blew dust off it, regarding it triumphantly. Effie Perine made a horrified face and screamed, pointing at his feet. He looked down at his feet. His last backward step had brought his left heel into contact with the dead man’s hand, pinching a quarter-inch of flesh at a side of the palm between the heel and the floor. Spade jerked his foot away from the hand.
“At one time or another I’ve had to tell everybody from the Supreme Court down to go to hell, and I’ve got away with it. I got away with it because I never let myself forget that a day of reckoning was coming. I never forget that when the day of reckoning comes I want to be all set to march into headquarters pushing a victim in front of me, saying: ‘Here, you chumps, is your criminal!’ As long as I can do that I can put my thumb to my nose and wriggle my fingers at all the laws in the book.”
“Bryan is like most district attorneys. He’s more interested in how his record will look on paper than anything else. He’d rather drop a doubtful case than try it and have it go against him. I don’t know that he ever deliberately framed anybody he believed innocent if he could scrape up, or twist into shape, proof of their guilt.”
He was pale. He said tenderly, “I hope to Christ they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck.” He slid his hands up to caress her throat… “You’ll be out again in twenty years. You’re an angel. I’ll wait for you.” He cleared his throat. “If they hang you I’ll always remember you.”
“When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it”
“I’m a detective and expecting me to run criminals down and then let them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go. It can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done, but it’s not the natural thing.”
“Would you have done this to me if the falcon had been real and you had been paid your money?”
“What difference does that make now? Don’t be too sure I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be. That kind of reputation might be good business – bringing in high-priced jobs and making it easier to deal with the enemy.”
She escaped from his arm as if it had hurt her. “Don’t, please, don’t touch me,” she said brokenly. “I know – I know you’re right. You’re right. But don’t touch me now – not now.” Spade’s face became pale as his collar.