The Maltese Falcon is a slim novel that moves along at a rapid pace and feels almost as fleeting as watching the iconic film adaptation starring Humphrey Bogart as its world-weary private detective Sam Spade. Much of that film adaptation—the third movie version of the novel, by the way—features scenes left intact with huge chunks of dialogue transferred verbatim from page to screen. The primary difference between the novel and film, actually, is that Bogey’s Sam Spade winds up being far more admirable than the trio of low-life treasure hunters scheming and betraying each other in pursuit of the “stuff that dreams are made of.” In the novel, Spade is definitely an overall better human being than those three…but just barely.
Somewhat shockingly, the story opens with the murder of Sam Spade’s partner in private investigation, Miles Archer. Archer had been tailing one of the three unusually idiosyncratic pursuers of an ancient statuette allegedly constructed by order of the Knights Templar as a gift for the King of Spain. Unfortunately for Archer, that pursuit which has been going on for some time and taking the three to various exotic locations around the world has brought the chase to San Francisco. Exotic in its own beautiful way, the death of Miles Archer is anything but glamorous. Archer dies the kind of sad, lonely death that he might well have faced if the case had been just another nasty cheating spouse assignment.
Shortly after the death of the man who shares Spade’s office on the streets of San Francisco, a mysterious man stumbles off those streets and into Spade’s office carrying a tightly wrapped bundle. The wounds prove fatal and the bundle proves to be a large and heavy statue of a big black bird. The bird that those three incontestably odd people have been searching the world over for. And so Sam Spade is introduced to a very beautiful woman who goes by as many different names as Sam has clients, an enormously fat man with the enormously fitting name of Casper Gutman and a bizarre little man whose name--Joel Cairo--possibly may indicate Middle Eastern descent and whose mannerisms strongly suggest to Spade the specter of homosexuaity, but who may be merely effeminate. The fat man's overly strong attachment to a young wannabe thug named Wilmer that Spade derisively refers to as the gunsel also contains elements hinting strongly of a homosexual relationship. The three (along with the gunsel) together make for quite an entertaining spectable to Spade.
The bulk of The Maltese Falcon centers around the spectacle of the friends of the fey Mr. Cairo taking advantage as the occasion warrants to lie, finagle, cheat, betray, humiliate and even beat up each other in an attempt to outwit the other two as well as Sam to get their greedy, grubby little hands on the bird. The location of which at the moment is known and accessible only to Sam as a result of early decision to entrust the stash delivered by the dying man to probably the only person in the world he feels anything for that can even approach being referred to as trust: his secretary Effie Perine who is as devoted to Sam as Sam is devoted to believing the worst of everyone. After much positioning and even more hope that the bird which Sam has Effie deliver will finally turn out to be the mythical treasure known as the Maltese Falcon, all hopes and positioning is dashed as closer scrutiny reveals that beneath the heavy black lacquer lies not the jewels of the Knights Templar, but a worthless bit of metal. The fat man and Joe Cairo will live to pursue the real falcon another day. The beautiful woman with the many names, on the other hand, learns the hard way that Sam Spade trust nobody. It turns out that she is the member of the trio responsible for murdering Miles Archer.
And though Sam never really liked his partner all that much, his code of honor demands that he turn her over to the police to face prosecution.