The Maltese Falcon

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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.
Lies and Deceptions  Theme Icon

The Maltese Falcon's plot develops through a series of deceptions. Most notably, Brigid O’Shaughnessy masks her involvement in the murders by appearing powerless and in love with Samuel Spade. Unlike Brigid, who hides her criminal behavior, the arch-villain Casper Gutman openly discusses his desire for the statue of the Maltese falcon. Although Gutman does not mask his law-breaking, he does hide behind his supposed respect for plain speaking in order to perform other deceptions, like drugging Spade and using his daughter, Rhea Gutman, as bait. Even Spade, the novel’s protagonist, only succeeds in apprehending the criminals by deceiving them into thinking that he is a corrupt detective. While Spade uses deceptions and lies, however, he ultimately does so for justice rather than for wealth or personal gain. Spade is also the only character to see past other people’s deceptions, possibly because he mistrusts almost everyone.

Characters in The Maltese Falcon also lie to themselves. Brigid, who never admits to the lies, often tells Spade that she herself can’t tell the difference between when she’s telling the truth and when she isn’t. Likewise, in the story Spade tells Brigid, Flitcraft lies to himself about the inevitability of death. Spade, on the other hand, remains largely honest with himself, never hiding his dislike for his dead partner or deceiving himself into believing that Brigid’s love is real.

In terms of the overall narrative, Spade’s pursuit of the truth becomes entwined with finding the statue of the Maltese falcon. The falcon itself represents the final truths for which Spade searches. Yet, as we learn at the novel’s conclusion, even the falcon is a lie, suggesting that no ultimate truths exist. Likewise, although the novel appears to end with Spade revealing the truth behind all the major deceptions, a final uncertainty remains about the unknowable inner feelings of the characters. For example, Spade does not know if Brigid loves him or, even, if he truly loves her.

Finally, the novel is written in the third-person objective, which means Hammet presents most information through scene descriptions and dialogue instead of through the inner thoughts of the characters. Without access to the characters’ thoughts or feelings, the reader becomes like a detective, judging each character’s motives, truthfulness, and integrity. Until the last chapter where Hammet reveals Spade’s unerring sense of justice, the reader must guess whether or not Spade is just as crooked as the villains.

Lies and Deceptions ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The Maltese Falcon related to the theme of Lies and Deceptions .
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 7 Quotes

“He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”

Related Characters: Sam Spade (speaker), Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Flitcraft
Page Number: 64
Explanation and Analysis:

Spade continues telling Brigid the story of Flitcraft, the strange man whom he tracked down a few years ago. Flitcraft chose to run away from his wife for one simple reason: he nearly died. While walking by a construction site, Flitcraft was nearly killed by a falling steel beam: the experience scarred him, reminding him that his life was short and fragile.

The story tells us a lot about Spade's code of right and wrong--a code that, we sense, is rooted in an acknowledgment of death. Spade is surrounded by death and danger at all times--yet, like Flitcraft, he finds a way to "adjust" himself to the danger and survive. Spade accepts the presence of death in his life, and proceeds normally. Flitcraft couldn't handle this acceptance for long, however, and so he soon slipped back into his old complacency, assuming that death was far away and unreal.

Chapter 9 Quotes

“Oh, I’m so tired,” she said tremulously, “so tired of it all, of myself, of lying and thinking up lies, and not knowing what is a lie and what is the truth.”

Related Characters: Brigid O’Shaughnessy (speaker), Sam Spade
Page Number: 89
Explanation and Analysis:

Sam Spade is starting to figure out the truth about Brigid. Brigid has been involved in tracking down a mysterious falcon statue that's worth a lot of money, and she's traveled to Constantinople to do so. Spade asks Brigid probing questions. In the middle of the questioning, Brigid feigns weariness and tries to seduce Spade--with great success.

We can't take anything Brigid says in the passage seriously. While it's true that she's been telling lies, she's perfectly in control of what she says (at this point at least). Brigid is only pretending to be tired and confused in order to distract Spade from figuring out the truth--in other words, she uses her sexuality to distract Spade, acting like a classic femme fatale.

Chapter 11 Quotes

“Well, sir, here’s to plain speaking and clear understanding.”

Related Characters: Casper Gutman (speaker), Sam Spade
Page Number: 105
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Spade meets "the fat man" Casper Gutman. Along with Joe Cairo, whom we're already met, Gutman is one of the main villains in the novel--a greedy arch-criminal whose desire for the Maltese Falcon is suggested by his enormous weight. Ironically, Gutman greets Spade by making a toast to plain speaking (and in a typically masculine, friendly way designed to appeal to Spade). In reality, of course, Gutman favors anything but plain speaking--he's trying to deceive Spade and win the Falcon at all costs. Whenever a character in this novel starts to sound honest (Gutman, Cairo, Brigid), look out: it's a sure sign that they're about to tell a lie.

“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

“Sam Spade,” she said, “you’re the most contemptible man God ever made when you want to be. Because she did something without confiding in you you’d sit here and do nothing when you know she’s in danger.”

Related Characters: Effie Perine (speaker), Sam Spade, Brigid O’Shaughnessy
Page Number: 153
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we see Effie acting as Sam Spade's conscience (and flirtatious mother/sister figure). Effie knows that Sam Spade has just had a meal with Polhaus and also met with the District Attorney. Spade, back in his office, tells Effie that Brigid may have been on the ship La Poloma when it caught on fire the previous night. Spade is calm and laid-back as he gives Effie this information: Effie is disgusted that Spade can seem so indifferent. Spade shows no signs of wanting to look for Brigid to make sure she's okay.

Why is Spade so indifferent to Brigid's dangerous situation? Effie suggests that Spade doesn't like the fact that Brigid went off and did something on her own--in other words, Spade doesn't like it when women keep him out of the loop. Effie is an interesting character--it's possible to interpret her as the only positive female character in the novel, a reminder that Hammett doesn't always conflate evil and effeminacy (although she's also presented as the most masculine female character). Of course, it's also possible to interpret Effie's statements as wrong and distracting: Effie wants Sam to give Brigid "some space," when--we later learn--Brigid is actually the villain, and has been plotting against Spade for some time.

The tall man stood in the doorway and there was nothing to showw that he saw Spade. He said, “You know –” and then the liquid bubbling came up in his throat and submerged whatever else he said.

Related Characters: Captain Jacobi (speaker), Sam Spade
Page Number: 157
Explanation and Analysis:

In this bizarre scene, Spade is sitting in his office when a strange man barges in, carrying a mysterious package. The man, Captain Jacobi (whom we've never seen before in the narrative), has been shot many times. He falls dead on the ground, but not before saying the words, "You know."

It's strangely appropriate that the man's dying words should be about knowledge--and that he should die before he gets to complete his sentence. Captain Jacobi proves that in the novel, knowledge is always just beyond the character's reach--up to the end of the book, we're always this close to finding out what's going on, only to be interrupted by death, violence, or more mysteries.

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

“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.