'Spade & Archer' by Joe Gores

'Maltese Falcon' forerunner flashes Hammett's dash

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In 1956, five years before he died from decades of bad health fostered by decades of heavy drinking, Dashiell Hammett told a newspaper interviewer, "I stopped writing because I was repeating myself. It is the beginning of the end when you discover you have style."

Taking his view, then, the beginning of the end must have occurred 22 years earlier, when he published his fifth and last novel, "The Thin Man."


By Joe Gores
Knopf ($24)


The five crime novels were produced in an extraordinary burst of creativity from 1929 to 1934 and have proved remarkably durable and adaptable.

"The Maltese Falcon," the third (published in 1930), was made into a film three times.

Whether Hammett was right about the deleterious effects of style, "The Thin Man" is not his best novel. "The Maltese Falcon" wins that title. And it does have style.

It's a style that crime novelist and Hammett expert Joe Gores has expertly incorporated into his "prequel" to "The Maltese Falcon," the only Hammett novel to feature San Francisco private detective Sam Spade.

Gores opens his tale as Spade sets up shop after resigning from the Continental Detective Agency upon finishing the "Flitcraft case"-- the case in the early pages of "Falcon."

"Archer" is, of course, Miles Archer, Spade's partner, who is murdered in "Falcon." Despite his name in the title, Archer does not figure prominently in the narrative until the last of its three sections, set in 1928, when he and Spade sign their partnership agreement. (The first two sections are set in 1921 and 1925.)

Spade may be Archer's partner, but he is hardly his friend. With Archer's wife, Iva, it is a different story. Her secret affair with Spade has its beginnings here, where its nature is more fully explored, if not explained.

As for the plot, it is a lively one involving, initially, a search for a rich man's wayward son that turns into a seven-year investigation.

Though a severe individual, Spade is at bottom reasonable, logical and sensible. If that's hard-boiled, then Spade is hard-boiled.

A lot of his persona resides in his name. Spade, Sam Spade--plain, hard, alliterative syllables. He has a sort of brutal courtliness; he is well-connected with the authorities and grudgingly respected, except by San Francisco police Lt. Dundy.

And, as alluded to above, there is the style, one that rests on terrific detail, precision in describing actions and scenes.

"Spade & Archer" closes by picking up the opening scenes of "Falcon," including the exact dialogue. Do I detect the possibility of a sequel or even a series, in the offing?


By Joe Gores

Knopf ($24)

Dashiell Hammett, above

Roger K. Miller is a novelist and freelance writer and editor.


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