Sunday, May 03, 2009

Spade & Archer by Joe Gores

Joe Gores is one of the few -- perhaps the only -- private-eye writer who walked the walk before he talked the talk; he spent twelve years working for a detective firm, and then moved sideways into writing novels. He's also the author of the most authentic series of PI novels, the DKA Files, which dramatize the PI's life without turning it into the parade of dames, murder, and crusty tycoons that characterize less rigorous books. And he's also the author of the well-regarded historical mystery Hammett -- which he wrote thirty years ago, so it's itself semi-historical at this point -- about, of course, the guy who created the Continental Op and Sam Spade.

So he would have been the obvious choice to write a prequel to Hammett's famous The Maltese Falcon. But the obvious only works out about one time in ten, so it's great to see that Gores did get the job to write this book -- that the rights-holders were smart enough to go to him, and Gores was inspired enough to want to do -- and that Spade & Archer came out as a good historical mystery, rather than as the bit of extruded mystery product that it so easily could have been. (Two words should be sufficient: Poodle Springs.)

As the cover indicates, this is a prequel to Maltese Falcon; it ends with the first few words of Falcon. But it begins seven years earlier, in 1921. Sam Spade is at the end of his rope working for the large Continental detective firm -- too much time chasing cheating spouses and strong arming strikers for his blood -- so he opens a one-man shop in San Francisco. He hires Effie Perine to be his secretary and makes an arrangement with a lawyer, Sid Wise, who has offices on the same floor.

Spade & Archer is in three sections, each essentially a separate novella -- Spade has a case in 1921, one in 1925, and a third in 1928, right before the events of Maltese Falcon. The three tie together, of course, particularly because they have the same mysterious villain behind them all. (As the flap copy accurately describes the plot: "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.")

I imagine a lot of the fun of Spade & Archer lies in seeing all of the elements of Maltese Falcon come together in Spade's earlier life -- how he comes to take Miles Archer as a partner (and to start sleeping with Miles's wife Iva), his relationship with Sid Wise (and with the cops), and so forth. I'd thought about re-reading Maltese Falcon immediately after Spade & Archer, but that's not its appropriate place -- it should be read (or re-read) before diving into Spade & Archer.

Gores's new book is a solid detective story with great '20s atmosphere; don't get me wrong. But it also reads a bit like a list of crossword puzzle answers, and that puzzle is Maltese Falcon. Any reader of Spade & Archer should be intimately familiar with Maltese Falcon to get the full effect.

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