19 March 2009

Spade & Archer, Archer & Spade

“(The fat man) sighed comfortably and said: ‘Now, sir, we’ll talk if you like. And I’ll tell you right out that I’m a man who likes talking to a man that likes to talk.’”

What a line, what a moment. Here’s another:

“It only took a piece of skin off, but he still had the scar when I saw him. He rubbed it with his finger – well, affectionately – when he told me about it. He was scared stiff of course, he said, but he was more shocked than really frightened. He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.”

Dashiell Hammett, at his smoky best, in “The Maltese Falcon.”’

Now listen to these lines:

“Spade leaned over a littered desk where a hulk-shouldered man in a woolen tweed suit was counting money into a green tin box.

“‘Stan Hagar around?’

“The money counter looked up. His nose had been bent to one side by a board or a brick. His face was heavy and needed a shave. It would always need a shave. His eyes were brown, dead.

“‘Who’s askin’?’

“‘Sam Spade. I want to see him on business.’”

That scene could easily be Hammett. It’s meant to read like Hammett, but it’s from a new book by veteran thriller writer Joe Gores, titled “Spade and Archer, The Prequel to Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.” Gores’ book is good, very good.

Joe Gores has the tough guy persona down, the persona pioneered by Dashiell Hammett in his short, two-decades long writing career. Hammett became famous for his West Coast tough guy adventures, and Gores studied and learned from the master. Gores lays down San Francisco places and streets thicker than fog on Broadway. He makes delicious re-use of Spade’s mannerisms. Where Hammett doesn’t supply details, Gores fills in like choppy water surging through the Golden Gate.

In an interview Gores said he wrote “Spade and Archer” after thinking about a comment a Hammett scholar once made about The Maltese Falcon. He called it “America’s first existential novel.”

“I thought yes, that’s exactly right: you don’t know anything about the past of these people: they just appear full-blown as if they sprang from the head of Zeus. So I became fascinated by that idea,” Gores told the interviewer. “Who is Spade, where did he come from, why he can essentially say to the fat man, ‘If you’d stayed away from me you would have been okay, but when you cross me then you have to deal with me now, because this is my town.”

Gores wrote a biography of Hammett some years ago, so a prequel to “The Maltese Falcon” must have come naturally. Gores’ novel is stuffed with authentic settings, amusing patter and scary bits. It inspired me to go out and read and reread a goodly pile of real Dashiell Hammett stories and novels. I bought a few, borrowed a few more, and immersed myself in another place and time in the city in which I grew up.

Hammett learned to pare down his tales to the minimum. Because they are so spare the reader may well imagine there’s more here than Hammett cares to share. Joe Gores fills it in somewhat, but never overshadows the original works. He just makes it a bit deeper and even more fun.

And he does it with style. Here are the final sentences of Joe Gores’ “Spade & Archer”:

“... Spade was smoking behind his desk when Effie Perine came in. He looked up at her.

“‘Yes, sweetheart?’

She finished shutting the door behind her, leaned against it, and said, ‘There’s a girl wants to see you. Her name’s Wonderly.’

“‘A customer?’”

“‘I guess so. You’ll want to see her anyway: she’s a knockout.’

“‘Shoo her in, darling,’ said Spade. ‘Shoo her in.’”

This moment is delightful for Hammett aficionados because Gores is quoting Hammett, ending his novel with exactly the words that begin “The Maltese Falcon.” It’s a great trick, a graceful handoff, seamless. Gores stands in the gumshoes of the master and holds his own.

Slice of life, bite of the knife. Danger on the streets, crime in high places. It’s all here, gritty stuff, no matter which master you choose to read.

“Shoo her in, darling,’ said Spade. ‘Shoo her in.’


“Spade & Archer: The Prequel to Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon” by Joe Gores. Knopf hard cover $24. ISBN 9780307264640.

“The Maltese Falcon” by Dashiell Hammett. Vintage Crime/Knopf paperback $12.95. ISBN 0679722645. Really good garish cover, just right.

Other ways to read Hammett:

“Nightmare Town: Stories” by Dashiell Hammett. Vintage paperback $14.95. ISBN 0375701028. From the publisher: This collection of 20 long-unavailable stories from the author of "The Maltese Falcon" includes classic noir styles that Hammett made famous.

“Dashiell Hammett: Complete Novels.” Library of America Hardcover $35. ISBN 1883011671. Lovely heirloom/definitive edition.

Pretty much everything Hammett wrote, even a play or two, his letters, and more, is in print or easily available on the used book market.

From the book jacket: “Joe Gores, formerly a private eye, is the author of sixteen other novels, including “Hammett” (out of print) which won Japan’s Falcon Award (what else?). He has received three Edgar Awards, one of only two authors to win in three separate categories: Best First Novel, Best Short Story, and Best Episode in a TV Series.”

Most of Joe Gores’ other books are out of print but easy to find used. He is usually published in mass market size, and this kind of book goes in and out of print rapidly.

To get a more contemporary, non-Hammett taste of Gores’ writing, you might try this:

“Glass Tiger” (an Otto Penzler Book). Harvest Books paperback $14. ISBN 0156032740. From the publisher: “In this fast-paced thriller, ex-Ranger Brendan Thorne is tapped by the FBI to stop a legendary Vietnam sniper from killing the recently elected president of the United States.”

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