Study Guide

Brigid O'Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon

By Dashiell Hammett

Brigid O'Shaughnessy

Trouble with a Capital T

Miss Wonderly a.k.a. Miss Leblanc a.k.a. Brigid O'Shaughnessy is the classic femme fatale.

What's a femme fatale, you ask? Good question. A French term meaning "deadly woman," a femme fatale is a seductive, mysterious woman who uses her femininity to lure men to do her bidding, leading them into compromising, often deadly situations.

This description fits Brigid O'Shaughnessy to a T. She's an expert at taking full advantage of her beauty and sex appeal to get men to do, well, whatever she wants. And she's also an experienced liar, skilled at manipulating the truth and everyone around her. But she's also completely irresistible. We admit that if we had been in the room when Brigid first walked into Spade's office, we may not have been able to resist her charms ourselves because we'd be too busy picking our jaws up off the floor. Brigid is quite a looker, to put it mildly, and she sure knows how to make an entrance:

A young woman came through the doorway. She advanced slowly, with tentative steps, looking at Spade with cobalt-blue eyes that were both shy and probing. She was tall and pliantly slender, without angularity anywhere. Her body was erect and high-breasted, her legs long, her hands and feet narrow. She wore two shades of blue that had been selected because of her eyes. The hair curling from under her blue hat was darkly red, her full lips more brightly red. White teeth glistened in the crescent her timid smile made. (1.8)

On the surface, Brigid is soft-spoken and timid, evoking a sense of innocence and helplessness. But don't be fooled by her shy good looks. For one thing, her killer outfit has been carefully calculated to produce the strongest effect: the two shades of blue she's wearing were "selected" specifically to complement her eyes (the better to lure in unsuspecting victims).

And notice the small, but very significant detail, that her cobalt-blue eyes are both shy and probing. She's looking for something, and the shyness is merely a cover-up. This red-haired bombshell has an agenda and she knows what she wants and she won't rest 'til she gets it.

The Girl Who Cried Wolf

So how does Brigid set up her traps for the unsuspecting? Let's take a closer look at her interactions with Spade to find out.

Even though Spade might be falling for this stunning redhead, he knows better than to trust her completely. And Spade sets up his own trapsto trick her. For example, in Chapter 6 after Spade's confrontation with Joel Cairo, Spade wants to know if Brigid had anything to do with it, so he mentions nonchalantly, "I saw Joel Cairo tonight." Brigid of course tenses up, and this is how the narrator describes her body language:

She got up from the settee and went to the fireplace to poke the fire. She changed slightly the position of an ornament on the mantelpiece, crossed the room to get a box of cigarettes from a table in a corner, straightened a curtain, and returned to her seat. Her face was now smooth and unworried.

Spade grinned sidewise at her and said: "You're good. You're very good." (6.50)

We can see in this brief paragraph that Brigid is very experienced at controlling her emotions. In the span of time that it takes her to walk to the fireplace, fuss with the ornament on the mantelpiece, light a cigarette, fix the curtains, and return to her seat, she succeeds in regaining her composure. If anyone else but Spade had been there, they would have surely been fooled by her acting. But nothing can escape Spade's hawk-eyes, and he sarcastically compliments her on her skillful acting abilities.

Why does Brigid only tell the truth when she's really pressed? Is it because she's a compulsive liar? Or does she think that lying is the only way to protect herself? At the end of the novel, Brigid makes one final desperate attempt to keep Spade from turning her over to the police by claiming that she loves him. Is this yet another lie? In some ways, Brigid is like the girl who cried wolf: she has lied so many times that it's impossible for Spade to believe her, even if he wants to.

But we also have to remember that Brigid is a woman trying to make her way through a world run by ruthless, vicious men. So maybe lying is the only trick up her sleeve that she can use to survive this masculine, aggressive society.

And in a way, Brigid is much more dangerous than our villain Caspar Gutman because at least Gutman is upfront about his ruthlessness, whereas Brigid plays the innocent schoolgirl act to disguise her real motives. But she's also an example of feminine strength and power because she fights for what she wants and doesn't let any man (or woman) take advantage of her. We wouldn't want to get on her bad side, but we also can't help admiring her gutsiness.