“His eyes and thick fingers moved without apparent haste, and without ever lingering or fumbling or going back…probing, scrutinizing, testing with expert certainty. Every drawer, cupboard, cubbyhole, box, bag, trunk—locked or unlocked—was opened and its contents subjected to examination by eyes and fingers. Every piece of clothing was tested by hands that felt for telltale bulges and ears that listened for the crinkle of paper between pressing fingers. He stripped the bed of bedclothes…He pulled down blinds to see that nothing had been rolled up in them for concealment…He poked with a fork into powder and cream-jars on the dressing-table…
“He did not find the black bird.” (p. 90)
In this passage, Spade searches Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s rooms for the Maltese Falcon. On the surface, the passage features Spade overturning Brigid’s apartment in his search, and coming up empty-handed at the very end. However, the language and sentence structure used to describe Spade’s search can indicate another meaning for the passage. One of the most distinctive characteristics of this passage is the extensive use of different types of verbs. Words such as “lingering,” “fumbling,” “probing,” and “scrutinizing” are dominant in the beginning of the passage—all words that convey slow and leisurely movement. However, as the passage progresses, we see verbs that convey more aggressive movement: “stripped,” “opened,” “tested,” “pulled,” and “poked.”
The structure of the sentences in this passage is also significant. The beginning of the passage features long and wordy sentences that are usually in the passive voice. Once the more aggressive verbs emerge, however, the sentences become short and choppy, usually beginning with “he” and featuring the active voice. The language used in this passage reveals a transformation in Spade’s character from apathetic and removed to emotional and involved.
The syntax and sentence structure in this passage indicate that the scene is not only about Spade physically searching Brigid’s rooms; it is also about Spade’s attempts to work out the mystery of Brigid O’Shaughnessy herself. The language used in the passage is very physical and intimate, with verbs such as “stripped,” “pulled,” and “scrutinizing.” Words such as these seem to draw a connection to the physical and emotional intimacy that Spade and Brigid experienced with each other the night before this passage takes place. In the scene before this passage, Spade tries to see through Brigid’s layers of disguise through words, but fails when she continues to lie to him. In the morning, Spade takes a more physical approach to the same problem by searching her rooms, but fails again. At the end of the passage, Hammett says that Spade “did not find the black bird.” To Spade, the black bird signifies the truth about Brigid, one that he has yet to uncover. This passage describes Spade’s efforts to strip away the layers of lies and deceit that Brigid O’Shaughnessy uses to cover herself, in order to see what naked truth lies beneath.