No Forgotten Book from me this week, but I do have some comments on a book that’s a deliberate throwback to another era. Joe Gores’ SPADE & ARCHER is a prequel to Dashiell Hammett’s THE MALTESE FALCON, one of the greatest – if not the greatest – private eye novels ever written. I have to admire anyone who would even attempt such a thing, let alone an author who could pull it off successfully. Thankfully, Gores does.
He starts with what I think is a brilliant decision to structure the novel in the form of three linked novellas, harkening back to Hammett’s novels RED HARVEST and THE DAIN CURSE. SPADE & ARCHER is a little different, of course, because its component parts were written to be published together, instead being published first as separate stories in BLACK MASK. Also, the time span of SPADE & ARCHER is longer than what you usually find in novels that were actually cobbled together from pulp yarns, since the three parts take place in 1921, 1925, and 1928. The first part begins with Sam Spade in Tacoma, working for the Continental Detective Agency (that’s right, he’s a Continental Op), but it’s not long before he moves to San Francisco and opens his own one-man agency, hiring a seventeen-year-old girl named Effie Perrine as his secretary. He investigates the theft of a small fortune in gold coins from a ship that arrives in San Francisco and also locates the runaway teenage son of a wealthy banker.
Those two plotlines crop up again in the second part, set four years later, which finds Spade investigating the death of another banker that might be natural causes, might be suicide, or might be murder. Gores continues weaving together strands from the first two parts in the concluding section, in which Spade takes on a partner, an old detective acquaintance named Miles Archer who happens to be married to a woman who was in love with Spade before he went off to fight in World War I. The newly-formed Spade & Archer agency investigates the theft of a large amount of cargo from the San Francisco docks, while Spade on his own tries to track down a quarter of a million dollars in buried treasure. Gores winds up tying everything together in a complex plot worthy of the pulp era.
That faithfulness to the roots of the hardboiled PI genre is this book’s greatest achievement, as far as I’m concerned. Other than a greater amount of frankness about the fact that Spade is sleeping with Iva Archer and with some of his female clients, SPADE & ARCHER really could have been written and published in the 1920s. Some authors these days, if they were trying to write a prequel to THE MALTESE FALCON, probably would have felt compelled to coarsen the language and make the sex and violence more graphic. Not Gores. He’s content to spin a pulp yarn and does a magnificent job of it.
Some readers are opposed to the concept of pastiches in general, and I can understand that. It would be pretty hypocritical of me to feel that way, however, since I’ve always made a large part of my living writing about characters created by other people. I do believe, though, that an author writing a pastiche ought to at least try to stay faithful to the spirit of the original creation. That’s what Joe Gores has done in SPADE & ARCHER. I’m sure a lot of you have read this book already, but if you haven’t, it gets my highest recommendation. It’s a wonderful novel, and probably the best thing I’ve read so far this year. And it really, really makes me want to reread some Hammett.