Saturday, June 27, 2009

Review: Spade & Archer

Just before I left on my trip I finished reading the hard-boiled mystery novel Spade & Archer by writer Joe Gores. Didn't have a chance to write a review at the time or on the trip, thanks to the incompatibility between my iPod Touch software and Blogger's interface (I can view, but not post blog entries).

So the novel bills itself right on the cover as "The Prequel to Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon" and that's pretty much what it is. Gores begins with Book 1 "Samuel Spade, Esq." This starts in 1921 with Spade solving a simple case in Tacoma before leaving the employment of the Continental Detective Agency and heading back to San Francisco to open up his own private detective agency.

We get a glimpse of his future partner, Miles Archer, enough to see that the guy is a jerk. And we learn that his partner's hot and somewhat trampy wife, Iva Archer, was once Spade's girl before Sam went off to fight in World War I.

To be honest, it has been a LONG time since I read the Maltese Falcon or saw the movie, so this stuff, which sets up events that take place in the later novel, was not that important to me. [And I just learned that there was a 1931 version of the movie before Bogart's more famous 1941 version. The earlier one apparently had more sexual innuendo--both heterosexual and homosexual--and once the Code censors were established it was banned for release in the U.S. until the 1960s.]

But the meat of the book deals with the cases that Spade handles from 1921 to 1928 and the contacts that he makes or re-establishes during that period. The cases are interesting, involving things ranging from the theft of gold bullion from a freighter to the stalking of a young woman friend of Spade's secretary to the mysterious death of a prominent banker and the ensuing coverup. There's some attempted union-bashing and references to the strike breaking of 1919 (Spade is shown as being more sympathetic to the striking union men than to the bosses) to boot.

Each of these cases shows that while Spade is a tough guy who can handle himself in a scrap, he solves his cases through a combination of being a shrewd judge of human character, being willing to take chances to look at things and people first hand, and having a lot of contacts in various places to gather information. He doesn't just strongarm or intimidate people into giving him info. And, particularly early in the novel, Spade doesn't always resolve cases to his satisfaction. It becomes apparent, at least to Spade, that there is a recurring criminal opponent playing a role in the cases he is taking on.

The cases themselves read almost like a collection of novellas. But unlike a collection of short stories, everything in this novel is tied together. For one, you don't get re-introduced to Spade at the start of each new case, nor do you revisit the details of places like his office or apartment unless those have changed in the intervening time.

For another, the resolutions of later cases depend upon Spade's relationships with people that he meets in the earlier cases. I found this to be a satisfying way of linking the stories without pushing the idea of a mastermind criminal behind the scenes too heavily. Spade pursues each case as if it was unrelated to the others, with any connections only surfacing along the way or after the fact. His relationships with the people develop over time in interesting ways.

And just like the Los Angeles of Raymond Chandler's classic Philip Marlowe stories, the Bay Area is clearly a strong supporting character. Gores does a great job of evoking a sense of time and place with his myriad but simple descriptions of locales, clothes, and customs from 1920s San Francisco and its environs.

All in all, I greatly enjoyed this novel. From other reviews that I've read, I suspect that Hammett fans will appreciate how Gores has captured Spade's voice and the atmosphere of Hammett's San Francisco while developing the relationships with key characters who appear in the Maltese Falcon. I liked it as a good hard-boiled detective story that demonstrated that if you have enough style, you don't need to resort to guns blazing and explicit sex scenes to keep the reader's attention, create dramatic tension, and establish your bona fides as a real P.I.

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