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
Lies and Deceptions Quotes in The Maltese Falcon
“He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”
“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.”
“Well, sir, here’s to plain speaking and clear understanding.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.
“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.”
“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.”