Returning to San Francisco in The Maltese Falcon


Peter Rothpletz

English 012 – Literary Cities

February 14th, 2016


Returning to a Familiar San Francisco in The Maltese Falcon


Aim of Discussion: McTeague and The Maltese Falcon are distinct texts in terms of both literary style and narrative; however, does the shared setting of San Francisco allow the novels to serve as both foils to one another and case studies for the evolving city?


20 Years Later

  1. The San Francisco we’re introduced to in McTeague hasn’t changed too much. If anything, with the Stock Market Crash of 1929, it seems like the more undesirable elements – predominantly greed and corruption – have become excessively pervasive.
  2. Prohibition and job loss have escalated organized crime, providing the perfect atmosphere for a gritty detective novel. Hammett establishes these realities early in the story.
    1. Chapter 2 – “Death in the Fog”
      1. Cold steamy air blew in through two open windows, bringing with it half a dozen times a minute the Alcatraz foghorn’s dull moaning. (11)
        1. Eerie reminder that true monsters are just a few miles out in the bay.
      2. San Francisco’s night fog, thin, clammy, and penetrant, blurred the street. (12)
        1. Immersed in a world lacking clarity. San Francisco clouded both by fog and moral ambiguity.
      3. The Death of Archer
    2. Discussion Question – Is The Maltese Falcon’s San Francisco a different city? And, if so, how?

Urban Living & Hardboiled Fiction

  1. Hammett worked as a private detective for the Pinkerton Detective Agency and nearly everything in The Maltese Falcon is in some way inspired by that experience.
  2. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the novel is Hammett’s prose, which was directly adapted from his time writing case reports.
    1. The genre is blunt, minimalist, and almost aggressively unsentimental. It pushes the feeling of a gritty realism.
    2. In some ways it reads like a comic book.
  • Simple sentence structure and language
    1. Spade’s alarm clock (16)
    2. Description of Cairo (42) (43)
    3. Wallet Contents (47)
  1. Discussion Question – Firstly, do you like the Hammett’s style? Are there other aspects of the novel beyond Hammett’s writing style that harken back to his days as a detective?


Greed with Envy”

  1. One of the central themes of Hammett’s text takes some time to manifest itself; however, once far enough into the narrative, it’s easy to see how greed is the key motivating factor for most of the characters in the book. Everyone is after the Maltese Falcon. Ultimately, though, it all boils down to money. The search for the statue is nothing more than a ruthless pursuit for riches.
    1. “We believed your two hundred dollars” (33)
    2. “Most things is San Francisco can be bought or taken (55)
  2. Discussion Question – Is this a fair assessment? In what we’ve read so far, how has money motivated characters? Is Hammett trying to convey message similar to that of Frank Norris?

Men, Women, and Gender Roles

  1. The first half of the novel is filled with male-on-male rivalry and competition – fistfights, “macho” arguments, etc. (82)
  2. Women also play a prominent role, but they’re all mainly shown through their relationships with Spade.
    1. Effie’s judgment (28) (99-100)
    2. The trouble with “Sweetheart” and stand-in female representation (3)
  • Brigid and Iva as Enchantresses (57) (35)
  1. Discussion QuestionThe Maltese Falcon can be described as a sexist commentary on the dangers of manipulative women; however, one could also contend it’s, in some ways, a feminist piece.
    1. Complex as men – fears, desires – sexes on an equal playing field.
    2. Have gender roles evolved in any way since there depiction in McTeague?








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