The Maltese Falcon


Dashiell Hammett

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The Maltese Falcon Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Dashiell Hammett

Raised in Philadelphia and Baltimore, Dashiell Hammett left school at the age of fourteen and held several jobs before becoming an operative for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in 1915. After serving as a sergeant in WWI and returning to the Pinkerton’s for a while after that, he began his career as a writer. His first story was published in 1922, and in the twelve years that followed he wrote numerous novels, screenplays, and short stories, and in many ways his writing, with its hard-boiled authenticity, established the genre of the noir detective novel. He ceased writing after 1934 and focused instead on political activism. A determined anti-fascist, he was a member of the Communist Party USA and, after pulling strings to serve again in WWII (despite the injuries he incurred fighting in the first World War), he refused to provide the U.S. courts information about other Communist party members that could have led to their arrest or harassment. For refusing, he was sentenced to five months in a federal prison. Unpopular with the American public because of his controversial political views, Hammett spent the last ten years of his life as a recluse living in his country house. In 1961 he died of lung cancer.
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Historical Context of The Maltese Falcon

Hammett began writing The Maltese Falcon after serving in World War I. After the war, many Americans felt that the government and traditional authorities failed the American people by engaging in an unnecessary war. Therefore, it is unsurprising that Hammett critiques all levels of authority by revealing their incompetency and possible corruption. Also significant for the novel is the period of economic prosperity known as The Roaring Twenties. Taking place in 1929, this novel occurs at the end of the period so the novel’s critique of greed perhaps reveals Hammett’s suspicion of the opulence and excessive wealth that marked the decade.

Other Books Related to The Maltese Falcon

Along with The Maltese Falcon, Hammett’s The Glass Key marked the beginning of a literary golden age of crime fiction. These works helped establish the form, style, and character types that would endure through decades of detective novels. One of the most famous detective novels to come out of this period was Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, a novel directly influenced by Hammett’s fiction. Building off of Hammett’s novels, Chandler would cement the conventions of the genre, including the cynical detective battling police incompetency, corruption, and mob activity as well as the femme fatale leading the protagonist to his demise (or at least close to it).
Key Facts about The Maltese Falcon
  • Full Title: The Maltese Falcon
  • When Written: Late 1920s
  • Where Written: U.S.
  • When Published: 1929
  • Genre: Crime fiction
  • Setting: San Francisco during the late nineteen-twenties
  • Climax: Spade’s showdown with the criminals in his apartment
  • Antagonist: Joel Cairo, Casper Gutman, and Wilmer Cook
  • Point of View: Third-person objective

Extra Credit for The Maltese Falcon

Blockbuster. The novel was turned into an extremely popular 1941 film of the same name with Humphrey Bogart playing the role of Samuel Spade.

Noir influence. The character of Samuel Spade has influenced countless depictions of the “hard-boiled detective” including Jack Nicholson’s character in Chinatown. Brigid O'Shaughnessy’s character has also become a model of the “femme fatale,” the mysterious female character who uses deceit and seduction to lead men to their ruin.