Thursday, 21 January 2010


It was 35 years ago that Joe Gores published Hammett, a brilliant novel in which Dashiell Hammett turned detective, though turn isn't quite the right word, since he was a real detective before becoming a great writer, a career path followed by Gores himself. This was his second classic in two years, because the year before, 1974, Gores' had published Interface, an absolutely crucial hard-boiled work, about which I've written before (you can link to that here). Now Gores revisits Hammett with Spade & Archer, a prequel to The Maltese Falcon. It grows out of Gores' intimate knowledge of both Hammett and the pulp era, which is both its strength and its weakness. 

Almost everything about the novel rings true, whether you're referring to the original Maltese Falcon Hammett wrote, or the third, and most famous, of its film adaptations. The beauty of John Huston's film is not only that he stayed faithful to the novel, using large chunks of the book's dialogue virtually verbatim, but that the casting was so true to the book's portrayal of the characters. we now see Bogart as Spade, Mary Astor as Bridget O'Shaugnessy, Sidney Greenstreet as Gutman, Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, Ward Bond as Tom Polhaus, right the way through the film. Gores has to keep this in mind, while still fleshing out his characters with backstory, and, for the most part it works. 

 He finds it hard to match Lee Patrick's Effie; she's a bit more mature and one of the guys in the film than in Gores' version, and he has a bigger difficulty with Miles Archer and his wife Iva. Although he builds their backstory with Spade, and his characterisation of Archer is good, in Gores' version the partnership is new at the point it is about to get dissolved; my impression is always that Spade and Archer have coexisted longer as partners. Gores' version does give an even bigger resonance to the moral position we know Spade will later take, when a man's partner is killed, especially, and something the movie invites you to forget at the end, when you have been screwing his wife, and that may be why he plays it that way. But the case which shows Archer's colours to Spade, and to us, is a beautiful set-up of all the things Hammett was concerned about, union-busting, the power of owners, and the use of detectives to help them, and it sets both Spade and Archer's characters firmly. Gores' portrayals of visits to Chinatown, Spade's relationship with the police, and Nob Hill toffs are all spot-on, the feel of the pulp magazines permeates them. 

This is the other slight problem with the novel, in that the story resolves itself much like one of Hammett's classic Black Mask tales. We tend to forget that, although we think of Hammett in hard-boiled terms, those stories had large elements of traditional 'who-dun-it' mysteries and pulp adventure stories about them. Hence, Gores' main villain spends most of the novel offstage, and is 'caught,' as it were, through a detective-story ploy, rather than the kind of climax we associate with hard-boiled pulp. As someone steeped in the period and the genre, I appreciated it, but I wonder if it might lack the punch some of the audience expected? Oddly, I wondered the same thing when I read the early, somewhat mixed, reviews when Spade & Archer was originally published in the States. As I say, it was more than enough for me. A novel that's well-written in modern terms, yet true to its period roots, that draws on the characters we know but builds on them, and that sets its story in a world that's both exotic and recognisable; I don't know what more you can ask for in a book like this. I think it works better than Robert B Parker's Chandler sequel, Perchance To Dream, and it's yet another reminder that Joe Gores is indeed an overlooked master of the detective story.

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