Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Spade and Archer, prequel to Maltese Falcon doesn't quite hit the mark.

If you read my from Blog from several weeks ago you would know that one of my favorite book is Dashiell Hammett's Maltese Falcon. It is one of the defining books in the genre of detective fiction and in particular private detective fiction when it was released 80 years ago.

But how did it begin? How did Spade and Archer become partners?

Well author Joe Gores answers those question in his new novel Spade & Archer: The Prequel to Dashiell Hamett's The Maltese Falcon.

I have to admit I was looking forward to this. Being a fan of Dashiel Hammett's and Sam Spade's. I wanted to know something or anything of his past.

The story opens with Spade doing surveillance work for the Continental Detective Agency's(this being a reference to another detective created by Hammett only know has the Continental Op) in which he saves Miles Archer(Archer at the time was working for another agency) from being attacked by two men. We find out they know each other. It here we find out Archer has gotten married to Iva(and it seems that before that she and Spade were an item). It is after this Spade reports to his boss and quits the agency to start his own agency.

In this book we find that Spade served in WWI were he was assigned to the Seventh Battalion of the Second Infantry and saw action in the trenches of the Lens-Arras sector of France. He was wounded and recieved a medal. That he already has a history with the to 2 police detectives Dundy and Polhaus. And how Effie Perine became his secretary(when coming to answer the ad for a secretary she lied and told all other applicants the job was already filled) and how Sam Wise became his lawyer(had an office next door to Spade and often used Effie for his secretary work).

As the story goes it is told in three parts, 1921, 25 & 28. It seems that each case Spade is investigating is connected by a single mastermind. First theft of gold coins off a ship, then a murdered banker and finally a Chinese woman who father was raising money for a revolt in China.

As for how the mystery is told Gores did a fine job with it. Connecting each case in a nicely plotted story.

But for all that it just didn't have the feel of Hammett's Sam Spade. For after all is said and done it could have been just another mystery with any other private investigator. Though there were glimmers of Hammett's tone or voice but they were few and far between to make this book truly feel worthy of a prequel.

Then there was the instant of foreshadowing that I dislike so much(comics do it too much). Now Spade doesn't like guns. In quitting the agency Spade makes a remarks on his competitive pistol shooting after his soon to be ex boss says something about it:

"The Pistol made the records. All I did was point it and make it go bang," "Eight-shot thirty-eight Webley-Fosbery automatic revolver. Only three hundred of them ever got made because they jammed in combat but they were so accurate on the firing range they got banned from competition shooting."

Now if you have read Hammett's book or are a fan of the movie you know that is the gun that killed Archer in the Maltese Falcon. It seemed that Gores was implying that Spade was able to recognize the gun only because he fired one before. He is a detective and even not liking to use guns he would need to have knowledge of them so it wouldn't have been unusual for him to to able to identify the gun.

Then there is his relationship with Detective Dundy. If you read Falcon(or seen the movie) you know that Dundy doesn't really care for Spade and his methods. He even went so far to accuse Spade of murdering Archer and Floyd Thurby in Hammett's novel. Dundy here again is just about accusing Spade of every one who gets killed in the Gore's book.

Then there was Spade meeting with the Assistant District Attorney office. It almost was an exactly similar to his meeting in Falcon with then District Attorney. So much so I almost expected Spade to ask the stenographer if he was talking to fast as he did in Falcon.

I don't know if Gores put that in the book because he thought since Hammett did he should. Or maybe he thought that the readers were expecting it.

There were other little things that bothered me that didn't have so much to do with the plot as with the writing. For instance almost every time when his secretary talked it was "Effie Perine said.." or "as Effie Perine got up". I just didn't understand why he had to use her full name almost all the time. Did he think we forget her name? Was so he wouldn't forget her name? He also did the same for Spade's lawyer Sam Wise. But when anyone else was talking he would use their first or last name only.

And as for Archer himself. He was hardly in the book at all. We saw him at the beginning then later on for a brief scene or two then it wasn't until later that the partnership began. Now in the book the agreement between the two was for only one year. In Hammett's book as well in the movie you got the impression that Spade & Archer have been together for some time(but that Spade was going to disolve the partnership for unknown reasons). But in Gore's book the partnership would only last a few weeks before Bridget O'Shaunessey would kill him.

Though I did like the nod as mention above to the Continental Op and later when Spade needed an alias he used Nick Charles which of course referring to Hammett's other famous detective in the book The Thin Man. But Spade use of aliases seem contrived. Reading the original novel you had the feeling aliases were not something Spade used. He didn't need to aliases I felt. It was his unpredicablity that was his greatest weapon. How, whom ever he was dealing with never knew what he was going to do. The use of them just made Spade seem like another private investigator.

Again it was a well plotted mystery but just didn't read like a Sam Spade novel. Between the first and last page it felt that this novel felt short of appealing to the fan's Hammett and Sam Spade in me. Now don't get me wrong. I wasn't expecting him to write like Hammett any more than I expect a play write to write like Shakespeare. But if you are going to write some one else's character you need to at least make it feel like how the original author intended the character to be. I didn't feel the unpredictability of the character when I first read The Maltese Falcon(and which I still feel when I read the book). When Hammett wrote Spade you just weren't sure whose side he was on or even if he was on the right side. But what Gore did was write a typical private detective story that would have worked with any private detective.

Now I never read Gore's any other books so I can't compare them to this. But if I was to judge I say he would have been better off just creating his own character for this book.

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