When Sam Spade gets drawn into the Maltese Falcon case, we know what to expect: straight talk, hard questions, no favors, and no way for anyone to get underneath the protective shell he wears like a second skin. We know that his late partner, Miles Archer, was a son of a bitch; that Spade is sleeping with Archer’s wife, Iva; that his tomboyish secretary, Effie Perine, is the only innocent in his life. What we don’t know is how Spade became who he is. Spade & Archer completes the picture.
1921: Spade sets up his own agency in San Francisco and clients quickly start coming through the door. The next seven years will see him dealing with booze runners, waterfront thugs, stowaways, banking swindlers, gold smugglers, bumbling cops, and the illegitimate daughter of Sun Yat-sen; with murder, other men’s mistresses, and long-missing money. He’ll bring in Archer as a partner, though it was Archer who stole his girl while he was fighting in World War I. He’ll tangle with a villain who never loses his desire to make Spade pay big for ruining what should’ve been the perfect crime. And he’ll fall in love—though it won’t turn out for the best. It never does with dames . . .
Spade & Archer is a gritty, pitch-perfect, hard-boiled novel--the work of a master mystery writer--destined to become a classic in its own right. Amazon Exclusive: James Ellroy Reviews Spade & Archer James Ellroy’s new novel, Blood’s a Rover, due out in September 2009, is the final, stand-alone installment of the Underworld U.S.A. Trilogy, which began with American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand. His L.A. Quartet novels--The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz--were international best sellers. American Tabloid was Time magazine’s Best Book (fiction) of 1995; My Dark Places, a memoir, was a Time Best Book of the Year and a New York Times Notable Book for 1996; The Cold Six Thousand was a Los Angeles Times Best Book and a New York Times Notable Book for 2001. He lives in Los Angeles.
Dashiell Hammett died in January, 1961. Alfred A. Knopf and Joe Gores were thus unable to seek his approval for the writing of this prequel to The Maltese Falcon. The publisher’s announcement for Spade & Archer pissed me off for that reason. Knopf had kallously kashed in on the Raymond Chandler centenary with a volume of Philip Marlowe short stories, written by various contemporary crime writers; I thought the Falcon rip-off would be more of the same. I am delighted to tell you that it is not. The first difference is that the Hammett estate authorized Spade & Archer. The second difference lies in the singular distinction between the two writers. Chandler was a florid gasbag and was easy to imitate and satirize. A wise-cracking knight, a steady stream of similes and punchy one-liners. A burning hatred of authority often expressed in jejune riffs and a constant barrage of pique. Chandler wrote the man he wanted to be. Hammett wrote the man that he was afraid he had become. Chandler told you everything that Philip Marlowe was thinking. Hammett did not describe Sam Spade’s thought processes. Spade’s actions and spoken words implied who he was. His murky interactions with a range of mendacious characters filled in the remaining blanks. Questions hovered on the last page of The Maltese Falcon. We were not sure how this ruthless, skeptical and occasionally sentimental man developed the mental survival skills and moral stamina to successfully and ambiguously mediate the horrible events of the preceding pages. We wanted to know why--but Hammett never told us.
Now Joe Gores does. And in doing so, he justifies Knopf’s kash-in. He has written a prequel that honors and enhances the legendary volume it enshrines, and seamlessly describes how Sam Spade got to the existential dead-end of the Black Bird.
We now know enough. Gores is too skilled a writer and too deft a Hammett scholar to tell us everything. Spade & Archer is a revelatory novel that still plays its cards close to the vest. Gores was presented with two dramatic mandates: tell an engaging, stand-alone story and get us to the Bird. Take us to the crux of Spade’s divided loyalties and plumb his adulterous heart. The Maltese Falcon gave us Miles Archer’s death and the tenuous resolution of Spade’s affair with Ida Archer. We now know more. The soul-cracks we barely perceived in Falcon are that much harder to discern. We’re starting to get it. At its best, Spade & Archer is the stoic’s credo as whodunit, and the retroactive announcement that Hammett will soon launch the hard-boiled style.
This novel feels pre-aged more than dated--as vintage Hammett often does to today’s readers. Gores has superbly recreated Hammett straddling the romantic novel and the urban novel in extremis. The language of the 1920’s seems properly tough and authentic, properly pallid when compared to modern gangster-speak. It’s the language of the Boom. The façade of the time and place will soon crack. Gores is warning us of what Hammett will imply to us, but never preach to us in the end. This is a very fine novel. Respectful, but too mindful of the source to be reverent--Spade & Archer exalts Dashiell Hammett, codifies his life’s work and decorously affirms the master’s serious intent.
(Photo © Marion Ettlinger) A Q&A with Author Joe Gores
Question: Apart from the fact that you’re a Dashiell Hammett expert, what was the chief inspiration to write a prequel to his classic novel, The Maltese Falcon?
Joe Gores: It was a comment the Hammett scholar Rick Layman once said about The Maltese Falcon that first grabbed me: that it was “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: 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.”
The way it came about is that that I’d met Professor Layman who’d written a number of fabulous books on Hammett, and the first really good biography of Hammett, called Shadow Man, (because one of the operatives at Pinkerton’s detective agency where Hammett worked said that he was a great shadow man, he could follow anyone anywhere and no one would ever see this lanky man tailing them). Through Rick Layman, I met the family, including Jo Marshall, Hammett’s surviving daughter, and in 1999 I wrote her a letter asking if she thought a prequel to The Maltese Falcon would be a good idea. She said no. So my agent, Henry Morrison, told me just to forget about it. Then in about 2004 the Hammett family was in San Francisco for a literary event and Jo Marshall got me in a corner and asked me if I’d like to write a sequel to The Maltese Falcon and I said no, I’d like to write a prequel, and she said “Oh, I guess I just wanted to see all of those wonderful characters again.” And I said “But they’re all dead,” she said “Oh, that’s right!” So from there we began.
For my own part, I wanted to find out for myself who Sam Spade was when he started out--how did he become this iconic figure? Every private eye who I’ve known, including myself, thinks Sam Spade is the ideal detective. Hammett himself said “he’s who all private detectives would like to be and in their more egotistical moments, think they are.” I have always thought you learn more of the private detective procedures in Hammett’s “Op Stories,” but Spade is the gold standard. I think of him as the Continental Ops’ older brother--the guy who really knows how to do it.
Q: As you were a private eye at one point in your career, can you say how closely the fictional character Sam Spade comes to a real private eye?
JG: He comes very close, and for many things--such as stopping in the middle of everything to talk to a theater owner who thinks that his employees are stealing from him, getting $50 bucks from the guy, and then just moving on--we never hear from this guy again. Sam just takes the money and forgets him. That’s classic.
I was essentially a repo man and a skip tracer, tracking people down. If somebody disappears he’s a “skip” so I’d try to find him. The reason we were more like the Op than Spade is I might be carrying 75 files at one time, working on simultaneous cases. However, just like Spade I never carried a gun. No private eye I know of ever did.
Q: The rhythm of the language--the poetic yet staccato-like style of dialogue--is so well done by Hammett, as well as by you in Spade & Archer. Was it hard to pull off? And do you think most people now hear Humphrey Bogart’s voice when they read Spade’s words?
JG: My style is very much for this book, I write in a broader, looser fashion in my other novels, but I was trying to emulate his style in The Maltese Falcon. In fact the greatest compliment I’ve gotten is that Jo Marshall, his daughter, said that when she was reading Spade & Archer she often forgot I’d written it. At certain moments, she thought she was reading her father’s writing.
I’m sure most people do hear Bogart’s voice, his delivery in that film. But he sounded quite different in Beat the Devil for example. He was smart enough to adopt that particular Hammett style for this movie. But in foreign countries, where he’s been dubbed, no one’s heard Bogart’s voice, which is strange to think about. I will say that the actors in The Maltese Falcon are all really great for their parts. You could never find a better Kasper Gutman than Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre is insanely good as Joel Cairo. The one who doesn’t fit physically is the secretary, Effie: in the book she’s in her early 20s, and in the movie she comes across a bit older. But otherwise everything is perfect.
Q: What is it about Hammett’s style that made him so popular as a writer of detective fiction? He seems very good at giving the reader the physical details of who’s where in a room and what people look like--do you think that’s from his own years as a detective or just as a good fiction writer?
JG: It is his style, but he wrote characters who you believed were real: you believed these people would and could do the things they do in this novel. Fred Dannay, who was half of Ellery Queen (Manny Lee, his cousin, was the other half), was a great friend of Hammett’s and in discussing his work he said that Hammett was a “romantic realist.” That tags it absolutely. The stories he told, the people he wrote about were, on a gut level, so real, so believable, while his plots--a golden bird encrusted with diamonds, for example--were more romantic.
The mystery about The Maltese Falcon is not about the Maltese Falcon: the question is who killed Miles Archer--that’s the whole point of the novel. Since Sam Spade was his partner, he has to do something about it. Almost all the private eye cliches that have turned up since--such as seeking revenge for killing a partner, or the bottle in the desk drawer that he takes out for a drink--were started with The Maltese Falcon.
The other thing that made him so central to the mystery novel is the Hammett hero, which, when you get right down to the bottom of it, is the hero deciding “it’s him or me. He is the enemy and I have to deal with him.” Hammett’s other great detective, The Continental Op, barely exists outside of his work--there’s nothing to him but his work. But Sam Spade is different in that we see his life: he’s a womanizer, he’s icy cold, he’s very bright, and he’s unsentimental. So we have a much more rounded picture of him and that was one of the reasons I wanted to write about him--it was to get at that Hammett hero. But yes, I think his physical descriptions are both from his years as a detective and because he’s very good fiction writer.
Q: One of the great things about Spade & Archer, of course, is that you not only get to see Archer--alive for longer!--but you get the history of Sam Spade starting his own agency and his evolving relationship with Effie, his secretary, as well as Iva, Archer’s wife. Was it difficult to stick to the details of these characters as you knew them from later in life, or did you feel free to take them to slightly different places?
JG: No it was not difficult: I started with what Hammett gave us about each of these characters. At one point he says about Archer that he was a son-of-a-bitch. And I felt that wasn’t enough for Spade to be having this affair with his wife, Iva. So I had to figure how did Spade know Iva. And one of the things Rick Layman notes in his marvelous book, Discovering the Maltese Falcon and Sam Spade, is that Hammett was asked about where the character Iva came from. He said that she was loosely based on, if only in description, rather than character, a woman who worked in a bookstore in Spokane. That’s why I set part of the story in Spokane. What if Spade, as a private detective in Spokane, went into that bookstore, met this woman, they’d become lovers, and that would be Iva. He leaves to go to the First World War and she marries someone else—-namely Archer.
(Photo © Jonathan Sprague)