Monday, March 22, 2010

Spade and Archer by Joe Gores (the prequel to The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett)

If you've just stumbled upon this page looking for information about shovels and arrows, let me educate you. This is a review of Spade and Archer, the prequel novel to possibly the best-known and most influential private eye novel (that it's one of the best goes without saying), Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, and the title characters are business partners in a detective agency.

The "Spade" of the title is Sam Spade, star of the novel, its 3 film adaptations, and a long-running old-time radio series. We don't learn much about Archer in The Maltese Falcon, other than that he's a bit of a lecher and that Spade is having an affair with his wife, whom Spade refuses to be the one to inform when her husband is murdered early in the book (in part due to his being a bit of a lecher).

I hope I'm not spoiling The Maltese Falcon for anyone who's not experienced it, but if you don't know and love it, why are you reading about a prequel? Anyway, what relatively few people know is that there was a sequel to the book written for the radio show Suspense. Writer/producer William Speir at the time was overseeing both Suspense and The Adventures of Sam Spade, and, great marketer that he was, thought it would be a good idea to get listeners of the former to check out the latter. Unfortunately, "The Khandi Tooth Caper" (broadcast in January 1948) is a weak attempt to resuscitate the major characters, so I'm not sure the experiment worked, especially since the radio Spade (as played by Howard Duff) is a much more light-hearted fellow than the one Bogart made famous.

So, it's about time somebody like author Joe Gores — a former P.I. himself, the winner of three Edgar Awards (for first novel, short story, and teleplay) and the author of Hammett the novel — made a really decent try at reusing these characters in a way that's not simply exploiting their popularity.

Gores does this and more. In giving us insight into the previous lives of Spade, Archer, and Effie, Gores actually enhances the experience of rereading The Maltese Falcon. So, what he's done here is not only create an entertaining novel of his own, but in the process he's also made the source material better! Gores does an excellent job with the period (1921–1928) and setting (San Francisco), even referencing the Fatty Arbuckle case, one that Hammett himself worked on while with the Pinkerton Agency during the same period Spade and Archer takes place. Gores also paints a realistic portrait of a younger Spade, not quite as jaded (though a colleague married Sam's best girl three months after he enlisted in the Army) but still nobody's sap.

It's 1921, and private detective Sam Spade has left the Continental Detective Agency (a thinly veiled portrait of the Pinkerton Detective Agency of which Dashiell Hammett himself was an operative) after "too much head-knocking and not enough door-knocking" and goes out on his own. His new secretary, Effie Perrine, is the first of four girls to answer his ad, and she smoothly tells the three that follow that the position has already been filled. The book continues and covers two other cases, in 1925 and 1928. Since this is a novel, the three cases are of course related, but Gores does a good job of keeping things interesting in the meantime.

Readers looking for a replay of The Maltese Falcon will find a less polished Spade with a penchant for undercover work. (Once he uses "Nick Charles" as an alias.) They may be less than interested in the decidedly unsexy mystery involving a stowaway teen and stolen gold, the death of a bank president, and the search for recognition by an illegitimate Chinese daughter. Also disappointing is the lack of a memorable supporting characters on par with Casper Gutman (except for Effie, who deserves her own book).

Reader Scott Brick's low-key delivery suits the noir atmosphere admirably in the audiobook version of Spade and Archer. His Spade manages to sound familiar without resorting to impersonation. (For a stellar recent interpretation, hear Michael Madsen in the Grammy- and Audie-nominated audiobook adaptation of The Maltese Falcon written and directed by Yuri Rasovsky. It also features stunning turns by Sandra Oh — who embodies the femme fatale using only her voice, quite a feat if you think about it — and Edward Herrmann, whose mimicry of Sidney Greenstreet is akin to resurrection.)

At over twice the length, Spade and Archer doesn't have the tight feel of its "sequel." But Gores' portrayal of Spade is authentic and multidimensional. It is what will keep you reading when the other portions no longer hold your interest. Rich with detail and character (I had forgotten that Spade wears green and white pajamas), it is a respectable companion that adds to the big picture and stands fine on its own.

Whether Gores has created a classic of his own remains to be seen, but Spade and Archer is as good an attempt to define Sam Spade as anyone could have done. Readers looking for deep insight into Archer will be disappointed, however, since not much is learned that wasn't already known from Hammett. But those simply wanting to see Spade solve another case (or three) will be more than pleased. Gores taps into the reader's nostalgia for the '20s (both real and fictional) with great success and leaves the reader smiling.

Further Reading:
Hammett by Joe Gores — the writer comes out from behind the typewriter to solve another case.
Devil's Garden by Ace Atkins — fictionalizes Hammett's work on the Arbuckle case.
Interface by Joe Gores — Thrilling Detective describes the ending as "possibly the best ... since Sam Spade refused to play the sap for Brigid O'Shaughnessy."

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