The Maltese falcon

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The Maltese Falcon (English original title: The Maltese Falcon ) is a novel by Dashiell Hammett from 1930. Due to its realistic, precise tone of voice, it set the style for later works of this genre, today it is generally considered a classic. Hammett's novel also proved to be commercially successful and was filmed three times in Hollywood (1931, 1936 and 1941 ). The Maltese falcon itself is a valuable gold statuette set with precious stones , which was painted black (possibly enameled ) for the purpose of camouflage .


San Francisco , late 1920s: Detective partners Sam Spade and Miles Archer are asked by an attractive young woman named "Miss Wonderly" to take on a seemingly harmless assignment. They are supposed to shadow a man named Floyd Thursby who allegedly ran away with her sister. Spade and Archer aren't enthusiastic, but take the case because Miss Wonderly pays good money. During the night Spade is called by the police that his partner Archer has been shot. To the annoyance of the police, Spade keeps a low profile and refuses to provide information about who hired Archer. Only a few hours later, the shadowed Floyd Thursby is also killed. The police, especially Lieutenant Dundy, see Spade as a suspect and suspect that he shot Floyd to avenge Archer's death. The next morning Archer's widow Iva appears in Spade's office. She and Spade were having an affair without Miles' knowledge. Iva asks angry Spade if he killed Miles so he could marry her.

Spade makes his way to Miss Wonderly, but first instructs his secretary Effie Perine to replace the "Spade & Archer" door sign with a new "Samuel Spade" sign. When Spade visits his client at the hotel, he learns that Miss Wonderly's real name is Brigid O'Shaughnessy. Brigid admits that yesterday's story about her sister was made up. Spade states that he and Archer never believed their story of lies anyway, but that they accepted the job because of the good pay. Spade later receives a visit to his office from the mysterious Joel Cairo, who offers Spade $ 5,000 if he can track down the figure of a black bird that recently arrived in San Francisco. Cairo suddenly pulls a gun and tries to search Spade's office, but clever Spade manages to trick him and knock him down. Spade discovers that Joel Cairo and Brigid O'Shaughnessy have known each other before. Brigid reacts nervously to Cairo's name and asks Spade to arrange a meeting with him, which he does.

Meeting at Spade's apartment at night, Cairo says he is willing to pay for the figure - but Brigid says she doesn't have it. Both mention a mysterious person named "G" who they appear to be afraid of. Just when there is an argument between Cairo and Brigid, the policemen Polhaus and Dundy ring the doorbell. Spade doesn't want to let the police in and they are about to leave when a scream can be heard from Cairo. The police gain access to the apartment and want to arrest Spade, Brigid and Cairo. The quick-witted Spade states that they were just playing to see if the cops would fall for such shouting. The police reluctantly accept Spade's explanation, but still take Cairo to the police station for interrogation. Brigid continues to refuse to give Spade any more information about the black bird. The two of them have a late night affair.

Spade has been followed for some time by a young man named Wilmer Cook. He confronts Wilmer and tells him that his boss, the aforementioned "G", should meet with him. Later Spade actually gets a call from Casper "G" Gutman and they meet in Gutman's hotel room. Gutman offers Spade a large sum for the black bird, whereupon Spade bluffs that he can get it, but needs to know what the bird is. Gutman hesitates at first, but a few hours later tells Spade the story of the bird: The bird was a gift from the Order of Malta to the King of Spain, but the bird was lost on the crossing. It was set with nothing but jewels, but they were covered with a black enamel layer to conceal the value. Gutman himself has been hunting for the falcon for 17 years and was able to locate it with a Russian general in Istanbul . Gutman sent O'Shaughnessy to Istanbul to buy the bird. The general became suspicious of Gutman's interest in what appeared to be a plain black hawk and refused to sell. O'Shaughnessy then stole the falcon, but betrayed Gutman and wanted to keep it to himself. She brought Cairo to her side as a new business partner, but soon distrusted him. She then took Floyd Thursby, an American gangster in exile , as her protector. Brigid and Thursby cheated on Cairo and blamed him for a crime. While Cairo was in jail, Brigid and Thursby fled to Hong Kong .

The detective collapses sleepily in Gutman's hotel room because Gutman had mixed drugs in Spade's whiskey. When Spade wakes up a few hours later, the room is empty and he returns to his office. Suddenly the seriously injured Captain Jacobi from the ship La Paloma appears in the office with a package in hand. Jacobi dies due to his gunshot wounds. Spade opens the package in which the bird is. Brigid, who cannot be found in the meantime, calls and urgently asks Spade for help. Spade leaves the package with the bird in a luggage storage before setting off for the La Paloma ship , which is on fire. When Spade arrives in Gutman's hotel room, where Brigid is said to be found, he only meets Gutman's teenage daughter Rhea. She was drugged and fed false information so that she first led Spade down the wrong track to a remote location.

Spade then returns to his apartment, where Brigid, Joel Cairo, Casper Gutman and Wilmer are already waiting. Gutman hands Spade the US $ 10,000 for the bird, but Spade makes another demand on the four criminals: they need a scapegoat to blame the police for the murders. After a lengthy tug-of-war, and above all at Spade's request, Wilmer is chosen as the scapegoat because he has the same weapon with which Archer and the captain were killed. During this discussion, Spade learns more details about the history and the murders. Eventually Spade instructs his secretary Effie to bring him the bird. Gutman scratches off the painting on the figure and is shocked to discover that the bird is a fake. In the general excitement, Wilmer, who feels betrayed by Gutman, can flee. Gutman, who slowly regains his composure and wants to continue his search for the bird, forces Spade with the pistol to give him back the $ 10,000. Spade only keeps $ 1,000 for the effort done.

Immediately after Cairo and Gutman disappear, Spade calls the police and reports that Wilmer killed both Thursby and Captain Jacobi. He also betrays Mr. Gutman as the mastermind and gives the police officers his address. Gutman hadn't expected Spade to betray him because - it seemed to him - he was too deeply involved. In fact, Spade has to fear his arrest and now confronts Brigid, whom he believes to be the murderer of Archer. Brigid eventually has to admit that she hired Archer to drive her unloved accomplice Thursby out of San Francisco. When this did not succeed and Thursby was unimpressed by the pursuer Archer, Brigid shot Archer in cold blood to blame Thursby for the murder and get rid of him in this way. When she learned that Thursby had also been murdered, she realized Gutman was in town and on her heels. She then came to Spade for protection.

Brigid now wants Spade to protect her from the police and assures him of her love. Spade refuses and coolly explains his reasons: she would have shot his detective partner and the honor of a detective would forbid him to let her go. If he covered her, the police would think he was the killer. In any case, she could report him at any time as a confidante and perhaps bring him to the gallows. Spade notes that Brigid, as an attractive and charming woman, has a good chance of convincing the prosecutor and the jury that she will get away with "only" 20 years in prison. However, should she be hanged, Spade promises to keep her in mind. No sooner has Spade given her this "consolation" of his memory than the police arrive and arrest Brigid. Spade learns that Wilmer was waiting at the hotel and shot his boss Gutman for betraying him, namely his willingness to hand him over to the police. Joel Cairo made a detailed confession to the police.

A little later, Spade is back in his office as usual. The novel ends with Effie telling him that Iva Archer wants to see him.

Meaning and interpretation

Dashiell Hammett reverses the classic role distribution of the crime thriller of " villain " and " detective " in the Maltese Falcon . As the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that each person is primarily looking for their own gain, regardless of morality or laws. Last but not least, this egoism ultimately leads to the unsuccessful efforts of the characters. The reader is left in the dark as to whether the private detective Sam Spade is seriously interested in cooperating in his negotiations with the criminals or only pretends to do so to clarify the case. Only at the very end, when it turns out that the "treasure" cannot be found, the murders that have taken place are cleared up.

In contrast to many other crime novels, society is not divided into the "normal" righteous and the "abnormal" criminals. Everyone appears to be (potentially) corrupt. The Maltese Falcon breaks with the traditional stereotypes and is considered one of the first detective stories of realism . The realism also arises from the fact that Hammett had worked in a detective agency for years and was familiar with the everyday life of this profession. The figure of the detective Sam Spade, who appears tough, cynical and not necessarily sympathetic, became a role model for many detectives (see “ Hardboiled Detective ”).

The narrator stays at Spade's side throughout the entire novel and accompanies his investigations consistently, but still keeps his distance from him: the reader is never presented with the inner thoughts of Spade and the other characters, unless the characters express them themselves ; instead, mostly only the external characteristics such as facial expressions and gestures of Spade are described.


The layout of the murder of his partner Miles Archer, which started Spade's investigation, including the identification of the murderer from the circumstances of the murder, is almost identical to Hammett's short story Who Shot Bob Teal? ( Who Killed Bob Teal? ), Which first appeared in True Detective Stories in November 1924 .

Film adaptations

The novel was filmed a total of three times. The first film adaptation of The Maltese Falcon was made in 1931 under the direction of Roy Del Ruth with Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels in the leading roles. The film allowed itself some freedom. The second film adaptation Satan Met a Lady from 1936, directed by William Dieterle, dealt with the original material extremely loosely : Starring Warren William and Bette Davis in the leading roles, the original plot of the novel was reworked into a detective comedy.

The third and so far last film adaptation from 1941 with the title The Trail of the Falcon , directed by John Huston, forms the classic core of film noir with several other films made around the same time . It play Humphrey Bogart in the lead role as Sam Spade and Mary Astor , Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre . Today it is considered one of the classics of crime films and the best of the three film adaptations. The trail of the falcon is also most faithful to the original material.


In the Modern Library's 1998 list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century , The Maltese Falcon ranks 56th.

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Dashiell Hammett: Who Shot Bob Teal? In: The Accomplice - Newly Discovered Stories . 1st edition. Goldmann, 1993, ISBN 3-442-05812-0 , pp. 138–167 (Original title: Who Killed Bob Teal? 1924. Translated by Benjamin Schwarz / Jochen Stremmel).