Third Person Narrator
Sheesh—thank goodness were not in any of these characters' heads, right? That might be a little too close for comfort for Shmoop.
The Maltese Falcon employs a third person objective point of view, which means that the narrator is not a character within the story. In many cases, a third person narrator has direct access to the characters' inner thoughts, but in the case of Maltese Falcon, the narrator rarely goes inside the characters head, and even keeps our protagonist Sam Spade at arm's length. This creates emotional distance between the reader and the characters, so we can only figure out what each character might be thinking by examining their physical reactions. Plus, you know, we don't have to feel like liars and murderers.
Let's Play Detective
Even though the objective point of view relies a lot on action and dialogue, Hammett does give us clues to the characters' thoughts and feelings by describing their body language and facial expressions. So in a way, we the readers get to play the role of the detective interpreting signs. Let's take a look at the scene in Chapter 6 where Sam tells Brigid that Joel Cairo offered him money for the falcon to see how she'll react:
"He offered me five thousand dollars for the black bird."
She started, her teeth tore at the end of her cigarette, and her eyes, after a swift alarmed glance at Spade, turned away from him.
"You're not going to go around poking at the fire and straightening up the room again, are you?" he asked lazily.
She laughed a clear merry laugh, dropped the mangled cigarette into a tray, and looked at him with clear merry eyes. (6.57)
How does Hammett's description of Spade and Brigid's reactions help us infer what they might feeling even though the narrator never tells us they're thinking? Let's figure out in three easy steps what is probably going through these characters' minds.
Our first step as the detective reader is to study Brigid's facial descriptions. First, she bites down hard on her cigarette (a sign of distress or alarm, perhaps?), and then her eyes glance quickly at Spade before turning away. Why might she be avoiding direct eye contact with Spade? Is she afraid of giving something away? This seemingly minor act of breaking off eye contact already cues us into the fact that she must be hiding something from Spade.
Now that we've unpacked the implications behind Brigid's body language, our next step is to examine Spade's response. He takes a subtle jab at Brigid by asking her whether she's going to go "poking at the fire and straightening up the room" because the last time she did that, Spade could tell she was trying to compose herself and buy herself time to think up her next lie. Spade is hinting to Brigid that she better come clean with him because he knows she's up to something.
But Spade doesn't overplay his cards either. Notice how Hammett writes that Spade talks "lazily." What does the word "lazy" imply? A careless, nonchalant attitude, perhaps? Spade doesn't ask her angrily, or rudely, or viciously. If he comes off as too aggressive, he won't get anywhere with Brigid. Instead he asks her "lazily," testing the waters very carefully to see if she'll accidentally slip up. He pretends to be indifferent, when in fact he's watching her every move like a hawk.
And last but not least, our third step in uncovering the hidden SS is to go back to Brigid and study how Brigid reacts to Spade's subtle questioning. She laughs a "clear merry laugh" and looks at him with "clear merry eyes." Why does Hammett repeat this phrase twice? Our hunch is that Brigid is back to her old playacting tricks. The repetition of the phrase "clear merry" smacks of deceitfulness. The last thing Brigid is feeling is merry, and she forces her eyes to look clear in order to keep Spade from seeing their hidden depths and whatever secrets they're holding.
And if that's not enough to convince you that Brigid's body language is masking her real emotions, the "mangled" cigarette is a dead giveaway that she's feeling tense and nervous.
So there you have it. You've just revealed the hidden implications of Spade and Brigid's conversation in three easy steps. But maybe you're still asking yourself why Hammett chose to limit our access to the characters' private thoughts and emotions? Well, for one thing, it creates more suspense. It keeps us guessing.
It also forces us to read more carefully. Since we have to play the role of the detective ourselves, we become like Spade analyzing Brigid's every reaction. We have to scrutinize the characters' words and body language in order to delve into what's going on under the surface.