The Maltese Falcon

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Authority, Justice, and a Code of Ethics Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Lies and Deceptions  Theme Icon
Authority, Justice, and a Code of Ethics Theme Icon
Greed Theme Icon
Masculinity, Femininity, and Sexuality  Theme Icon
Fate and Death Theme Icon
Love and Sex  Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Maltese Falcon, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Authority, Justice, and a Code of Ethics Theme Icon

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

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Authority, Justice, and a Code of Ethics appears in each chapter of The Maltese Falcon. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Authority, Justice, and a Code of Ethics Quotes in The Maltese Falcon

Below you will find the important quotes in The Maltese Falcon related to the theme of Authority, Justice, and a Code of Ethics.
Chapter 1 Quotes

He looked rather pleasantly like a blonde satan.

Related Characters: Sam Spade
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

Right away, Hammett introduces us to his antihero, Sam Spade. Spade is the "hero" of the novel, in the sense that he's its main character, and has a definite moral code (the code that leads him to avenge his partner's death at the end of the book). And yet Spade is anything but a conventional pillar of justice. On the contrary, he's an adulterer, and seems to have little compunction about hurting women and, at times, framing people for murder. He is, in short, half hero and half villain--a description that mirrors his appearance ("blonde satan"). Spade's personality was an important influence on the antihero archetype in noir and crime fiction: Spade isn't exactly a good guy, but he's a little better than the bad guys, and he's at least smart, intriguing, and attractive enough that we can't help rooting for him.


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Chapter 11 Quotes

“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.”

Related Characters: Sam Spade (speaker), Casper Gutman , Wilmer Cook
Related Symbols: Guns
Page Number: 110
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sam Spade, who's been talking to Casper Gutman, notices Gutman's henchmen, a young man named Wilmer. Spade calls Wilmer a "gunsel," a slang term that means both "homosexual" and "gunman."

First, notice that Spade threatens to kill Wilmer. It's possible that Spade is threatening to kill the man in order to intimidate Gutman into being honest--Spade doesn't want Gutman to double-cross him, and the best way to avoid a double-cross is to let everyone know that he (Spade) is dangerous.

Second, the passage reinforces the homophobia and aggressive masculinity of Spade's universe. Spade is, indeed, "uncomfortable" around Wilmer, for much the same reasons that he was uncomfortable around Joe Cairo (another villainous character whom the novel portrays as effeminate). Spade's status as the antihero of the novel--dangerous, but also the protector of right and wrong--is closely linked to his status as the most masculine character in the novel.

Chapter 14 Quotes

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.”

Related Characters: Sam Spade (speaker), District Attorney Bryan
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

As the novel goes on, Spade has to fight off calls and meetings from lawyers and police officers who think that Spade had something to do with the death of his partner. In this passage, Spade tells the District Attorney, Bryan, that he can't disclose everything he deals with in the course of a day: his clients have the right to a certain amount of privacy, and Spade is reluctant to violate that right.

Should we take Spade seriously? Spade doesn't want to disclose his current case, but not because of his respect for people's rights, but rather because he thinks the case could lead to the Maltese Falcon. Spade has been shown to have some moral code, so it's certainly possible that he genuinely believes his clients have rights--but Spade is also greedy, and doesn't exactly express any strict "rules" here. The passage is also important because it shows that Spade is"caught halfway between law and crime: as a private investigator, he's not a cop or a criminal--the very definition of an antihero.

“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.”

Related Characters: Sam Spade (speaker), District Attorney Bryan
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

District Attorney Bryant suspects Spade of the murder of Spade's partner, Archer. Spade angrily tells Bryant that his only way of clearing his name is to "take the law into his own hands" by tracking down the real killers, and avoiding the police, who would only bungle things.

Spade makes an interesting point. Unlike the DA, Spade doesn't have to play by other people's rules--as a result, he's a much more capable crime-solver than any government detective could be (at least in the world of the book). Spade also proves that he knows how to deal with bureaucrats like Bryant: at times, he's blunt and to the point, stating that he intends to clear his name by doing what he does best--solve crimes. This whole conversation also reinforces Spade as the archetype of the "lone wolf" detective--going against authority and acting rude and rebellious, but turning out to be right in the end. The fact that this trope has been done and re-done countless times since Hammett's work shouldn't diminish the original's intrigue.

Chapter 16 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Sam Spade, Effie Perine, Captain Jacobi
Related Symbols: The Maltese Falcon
Page Number: 159
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Spade allows himself to be overcome with greed. Captain Jacobi has just stumbled into his office, dying, with a package containing what appears to be the legendary Maltese Falcon. Spade is so elated by the discovery of the Falcon that he holds it above his head, stepping on Jacob's dead body in the process.

The passage is notable for a couple reasons. First, notice that it's Effie who alerts Spade to the fact that he's disrespecting a dead body--as usual, Effie is the voice of right and wrong. Second, notice that Spade has finally given in to greed and desire--he's heard so much about the Falcon that he's willing to compromise his own moral code (disrespecting the dead) to celebrate. Also, notice that Spade holds the Falcon over his head (an act that would be nearly impossible, one would think, if the bird were actually gold, as it's rumored to be). Perhaps Hammett is foreshadowing the novel's final "twist," that the Falcon is a fake.

Chapter 18 Quotes

“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.”

Related Characters: Sam Spade (speaker), Casper Gutman
Page Number: 176
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Spade begins to craft a story to tell the police. Spade knows the ironclad rule of law enforcement: somebody has to go to jail. Indeed, spade has always been able to coexist with the police and the crime world because he respects such a rule: he can get away with disrespecting authorities because he gets results, and sends people to prison at the right time. Now (partly because there's a lot of suspicion directed at Spade himself), Spade knows he has to send someone to jail for the murder of Thursby and Jacobi.

The passage shows Spade at his most villainous, and his most anti-heroic. Spade doesn't bother to talk about whether the people he sends to jail are or guilty or innocent--on the contrary, he just talks about "getting results." Spade obeys a set of rules, and yet his "code" seems immoral by any standard: Spade is even willing to send innocent people to prison for crimes they didn't commit, as long as it maintains his independence and the general sense that "justice" has been served.

“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.”

Related Characters: Sam Spade (speaker), Casper Gutman , District Attorney Bryan
Page Number: 180
Explanation and Analysis:

Spade continues to try to convince Casper Gutman to frame Wilmer Cook for the murders of Jacobi and Thursby. Spade knows that somebody needs to go to jail for the murders--furthermore, he knows that the District Attorney, Bryant, will want to "get results" by sending someone to prison. Spade admits that Bryant doesn't exactly "frame" innocent people, but he suggests that Bryant does twist the truth to ensure a conviction.

In short, Spade shows that he knows all about the world of law enforcement. In the hard-boiled world of Hammett's novel, officials don't really care about right and wrong at all--they just care about how their reputations seem on paper. Bryant, a powerful man, is easy to control, because he's so deeply invested in his career and his public appearance. Therefore, Spade can sent Wilmer to prison, knowing that Wilmer's (relative) innocence of some crimes won't seriously bother Bryant at all.

Chapter 20 Quotes

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.”

Related Characters: Sam Spade (speaker), Brigid O’Shaughnessy
Page Number: 211
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Spade discovers the truth: he knows that Brigid was the one who murdered his partner, Miles Archer. The passage is important because it shows Spade in the midst of a genuine moral crisis. One one hand, Spade doesn't want to send Brigid to jail for the murder--he seems to care about her deeply. And yet Spade also acknowledges the truth: she's guilty, and there's a possibility that the jury will sentence her to be hanged.

The passage shows Spade at his most callous. He's capable of feelings for Brigid, but he also recognizes that she's a murderous, devious woman. As a result, he decides to punish her for killing his partner--upholding his own moral code, but also acting especially callous and sexist, caressing Brigid like a beautiful object even as he cynically contemplates her potential death.

“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”

Related Characters: Sam Spade (speaker), Brigid O’Shaughnessy
Page Number: 213
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Hammett gives us a clear sense of Spade's moral code. Spade knows that Brigid was the one who murdered his partner, Miles Archer. Although Spade didn't particularly like his partner at all, he knows that the "right thing" is to avenge his partner's death. There's a strong code of cooperation and mutual respect in Spade's work, and Spade obeys this code at all times, even if it leads him to work with people like Archer, whom he doesn't like at all (and whose wife is sleeping with him).

The passage is fascinating because it shows that, in the end, Spade is more loyal to a man he hates than a women he cares about. The code of right and wrong that Spade obeys is, at the most basic level, a masculine code: Spade gives men a form of respect and trust that he would never give to women. The passage could be interpreted as the clearest expression of the novel's sexism: real men are rugged and honorable, while women are devious and emotional.

“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.”

Related Characters: Sam Spade (speaker), Brigid O’Shaughnessy
Page Number: 214
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Spade continues to give his reasons for turning Brigid in to the police. Spade's explanation is curious because it makes him look weak and powerless--just a pawn in a vast "natural order of things." Spade explains that it's the natural order for a detective to turn someone in to the police: when there's a crime, somebody has to go to jail. Spade's reliance on such an order leads him to send Brigid to prison--in spite of his feelings for Brigid, somebody has to be punished for murder.

Spade exemplifies an independent, macho way of looking at the world: he "is what he is," and refuses to change for anyone or anything. Spade could conceivably let Brigid go free and start a new life somewhere with her, but he's too loyal to his own sense of law and order.

“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.”

Related Characters: Sam Spade (speaker), Brigid O’Shaughnessy (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Maltese Falcon
Page Number: 215
Explanation and Analysis:

Brigid angrily asks Spade to tell her the truth: would he have turned her in to the police if the Maltese Falcon had been real? Brigid is implying that Spade wouldn't have been so focused on "doing the right thing" if he'd suddenly been made rich.

It's hard to deny that Brigid has a point. We've already seen that Spade is willing to sacrifice his values when he gets his hands on something valuable--remember the scene in which he stands on Jacobi's dead body because he thinks he has the falcon (a great metaphor for the way money corrupts).

And yet Spade insists that he is a just man: he just pretends to be devious and corrupt in order to attract the right clients and make friends with the right people (as he sarcastically and rather cruelly says here). In his mind, Spade is a good man: he just pretends to be corrupt because it's useful to his business, but in reality he's always thinking about doing the moral thing. Again, Hammett doesn't tell us whether we're supposed to believe Spade or not. Spade claims he knows how to keep good and evil separate--but perhaps in the course of his work, he's begun to confuse the two.

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.

Related Characters: Effie Perine (speaker), Sam Spade
Page Number: 217
Explanation and Analysis:

At the finale of the novel, Spade returns to his office, having ratted out Brigid, the woman he loved. Spade tells Effie what he did, and Effie is horrified. She admits that Spade did the "right thing" (avenged his partner's death, turned in a criminal, etc.), but also suggests that Spade acted for the wrong reasons--and that thus he is now repulsive to her. (Note also that the thing that's so shocking is that Effie doesn't allow Spade to touch her--emphasizing how "natural" it was for the hyper-masculine Spade to always feel comfortable touching his female employee.)

The passage is very complicated and can be interpreted in any number of ways. Effie, who's been a voice of reason and morality throughout the novel, seems to be criticizing Spade for his unjust behavior--perhaps Effie senses (as Brigid did) that Spade wouldn't have been so eager for justice had he gotten his hands on the real Maltese Falcon. But perhaps Hammett's point is just the opposite: perhaps Spade is ultimately a noble, if not admirable character because he does the right thing, even when the "right thing" is terrible--sending a woman to hang.

Spade seems to sense that he's done something horribly wrong, and to suddenly doubt his decision--hence his pale face. And yet Spade has already acted decisively, seemingly totally confident in the morality of his actions. As a private investigator--halfway between the cops and the criminals--Spade's burden is to make difficult, morally ambiguous decisions, and live with the guilt and the consequences.