Brigid O'Shaughnessy hires Sam Spade to protect her from Thursby. But when Thursby winds up dead along with Spade's partner Miles Archer, Spade finds himself entangled in a chase for something called the Maltese falcon.
First there's the call to action, in which something has gone terribly wrong. And it can't get much worse for Spade. Not only is his partner dead, but Spade is also having an affair with Archer's wife and has to keep it a secret from the police.
On top of it, Spade has agreed to help a woman he doesn't entirely trust find some silly statuette that he knows absolutely nothing about. But Spade is in too deep now to turn back, so he's off on his journey to find the black bird.
Spade follows one lead after the next to uncover the Maltese falcon, battling gun-toting crooks and a double-crossing dame along the way. Now Spade is on his own as he attempts to solve both the mystery of his partner's death and the secret hiding place of the falcon. He has to sift through Brigid's countless lies, face the deadly end of Wilmer's automatic, and survive getting drugged by Gutman, all in an attempt to get to the falcon before the bad guys.
Arrival and Frustration
A mysterious man gives a brown package to Spade right before collapsing onto the floor, dead. Spade opens the package to reveal the Maltese falcon.
At this point in the novel, Spade is really close to achieving his goal. After his relentless pursuit after the black bird, it just drops into his lap out of nowhere. But even though it seems as if his luck has turned, Spade realizes that he still has to face a new set of obstacles. For one thing, there's a dead man in his office, which is not good for business. And for another, Spade still hasn't figured out who killed his partner, and how to use the falcon as a bargaining chip with Gutman.
The Final Ordeals
In a final showdown, Spade convinces Gutman to use Wilmer as the "fall guy." But when Gutman discovers that the black bird is a fake, all the bad guys flee, leaving Spade empty-handed with no one to turn over to the police. Spade then accuses Brigid of murdering Archer (anyone see that coming?).
Sure, we had our suspicions about Brigid, but we give Spade props for connecting all the dots and realizing that Brigid was the one killed Archer. In the end, Brigid turns out to be the most dangerous of all the criminals. With Gutman, there's never any question that he's the villain, but Brigid uses her femininity to feign innocence and hide her true deceptive nature.
When Spade returns to his office, Effie is sore at him for betraying Brigid. Did Spade do the right thing turning Brigid in? Was he sacrificing his love for her in the name of justice, or was he only looking out for himself by keeping the cops off his back?
The Maltese Falcon doesn't end in the traditional sense, where the quest concludes with all the characters living happily ever after. In this case, the falcon turns out to be a fake, and even though Spade solves the murder, his real motives are morally ambiguous. He also doesn't "get the girl" in the end, either. The woman he supposedly loves is now in jail, and he has to decide whether or not to get back together with Iva (we're secretly hoping he picks Effie! After all, she's the only one who's been entirely honest and devoted to Spade the whole time).