Book World: Spade & Archer, by Joe Gores
Monday, February 23, 2009
SPADE & ARCHER
The Prequel to Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon
By Joe Gores
Knopf. 337 pages. $24
Dashiell Hammett's 1930 novel "The Maltese Falcon" is far from flawless, but it was the fountainhead of modern American crime fiction. Hammett's two-fisted, cynical, charismatic, fearless Sam Spade appears only in this one novel, but he was the prototype of all the great private eyes who followed, from Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe to John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee to John Sandford's Lucas Davenport. Spade is blazingly alive in the book's pages, but his immortality was guaranteed by Humphrey Bogart's portrayal in John Huston's 1941 film noir classic -- a movie that in important ways improved on the novel.
The fact that Hammett wrote several more novels but never returned to Spade suggests that, in his view, the portrait was complete, but now his surviving daughter has given the Edgar-winning crime novelist Joe Gores (who previously wrote the novel "Hammett") permission to write this prequel to "Falcon." Purists will say they should have left well enough alone, but "Spade & Archer" is a respectable piece of work. Gores has sought not to modernize Spade but to recapture him, writing in Hammett's voice, and to tell us more about his earlier life and career.
To that end, he recounts three of Spade's cases, set in 1921, 1925 and 1928. In theory they show Spade's development -- near the end he remarks on how much tougher he's become -- but I can't say I saw much growth. In the first scene of the first story, he jams his burning cigarette into a bad guy's eye, so he was never exactly a softie. Cops were always awed by this "blond satan," ladies were always weak-kneed in his presence, and from start to finish he always chain-smoked his self-rolled cigarettes and stayed up late with a bottle of rum. We're not surprised to learn that he fought with valor in France during World War I; Spade was born larger than life.
The plots of the three segments -- which ultimately prove to have an important connection -- often echo the one in "Falcon." Beautiful young women come to Spade's office and tell him stories he doesn't believe, just as Miss Wonderly (a.k.a. Brigid O'Shaughnessy) did at the start of "Falcon." In the first story, we see Spade hire the 17-year-old Effie Perine, who becomes his adoring secretary; demolish three thugs who attack him; and pose as a longshoreman as he searches for a fortune in missing gold on the San Francisco waterfront. In the next segment, another gorgeous but suspicious young woman tells Spade she is being followed by a "sinister Turk" because of the missing "chest of Bergina," a gold-bound box that once belonged to the sister of Alexander the Great, all of which recalls the missing, bejeweled Maltese Falcon.
Gores sticks close to the original playbook. Hammett told us that when aroused, Spade's eyes "burned yellowly" and Gores's Spade has that same affliction. Spade's favorite toast, often invoked, is still "Success to crime." We're still treated to 1920s slang: "I got hootched up like a bat last night," and a hard-to-describe object is still a "dingus." We learn about Spade's earlier romance with Iva, who married Miles Archer when Spade went off to war, but here they continue the affair after Spade and Archer become partners.
Gores also continues Hammett's habit of describing in detail virtually every character who crosses his stage. Here, for example, is a cabdriver, never to be seen again: "The gap-toothed skinny driver had rheumy eyes and a tweed cap pulled down over his ears and fur-lined gloves on his hands." Out-and-out thugs are dismissed as having "pig eyes" or a "bullet head." Gores is faithful to Hammett's largely unconscious sexism (most women are called "angel," "sweetheart" or "precious"), but he spares us the nasty homophobia that afflicted Hammett's portrait of Joel Cairo.
He captures Hammett's razor-sharp dialogue and his lovingly detailed portraits of the streets of San Francisco, too. Most of us think of Hammett's dialogue as having been influenced by Hemingway, although one crime-fiction scholar argues (rather perversely) that the influence went the other way, because Hammett's early stories were appearing in Black Mask a year before Hemingway's began appearing in literary journals in Paris. This theory assumes, of course, that Hemingway was reading Black Mask. But people feel strongly about Hammett. Another scholar insists that "The Maltese Falcon" was "America's first existential novel." Perhaps it was.
Existentialism aside, Hammett was an important and influential figure, one who wrote with great energy, self-confidence and imagination and a near-total lack of sentiment. His subject was never just garden-variety crime; Hammett was writing about corruption throughout society, notably in business, law enforcement and government. Gores has done a stalwart job of recapturing his highly individual voice. The difference, of course, is that Hammett came out of nowhere 80 years ago, working in the dark, struggling to create something new. Imitation can be an art in itself, but, as Gores knows, it can never equal the initial burst of inspiration that it honors.
Patrick Anderson can be reached at email@example.com.