Before There Was a Falcon

This weekend it’s all about SPADE AND ARCHER, Joe Gores’ prequel to Dashiell Hammett’s classic crime novel THE MALTESE FALCON. My review runs in the Los Angeles Times on Monday – I’ll add the link and excerpt when it goes up – but right now I’m fascinated by the different approaches being taken in the reviews already published.

Roger K. Miller was first out of the gate in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but his review is more summary than criticism. Then we have David Gates’ more sneering take in the New York Times, which helpfully provides a clue to its overall tone in the opening paragraph:

As is customary when a publisher wants to be extra-helpful, the early review copies of “Spade & Archer: The Prequel to Dashiell Hammett's
‘The Maltese Falcon’ ” include a “conversation” with the author, Joe
Gores. The book, Gores tells his deferential interlocutor (identified
only as “Q”), was chiefly inspired by the Hammett scholar Richard
Layman’s remark that “The Maltese Falcon,” serialized in 1929-30, was
“America’s first existential novel”: “I thought, yes, that’s exactly
right. You don’t know anything about the past of these people; they
just appear full-blown, as if they sprang from the head of Zeus.” It
makes you wonder, not only about the freshness of Gores’s metaphorical
invention, but also about his common sense: in the process of inventing
back stories for Hammett’s characters, isn’t he de-existentializing the
very imaginative vision that drew him to the project in the first

Obviously, that’s up to readers to judge, but when Gates drops in asides like “Gores doesn’t call himself a Hammett scholar, but he’s clearly an

obsessive — and for a writer of the 21st century, this obsession isn’t

entirely wholesome”, it, along with the reviewer no-no of marketing material references, makes one wonder if the deck wasn’t stacked before he even read the first word of SPADE AND ARCHER.

Cara Black’s review for the San Francisco Chronicle not only diametrically opposes Gates’ critical judgment (“Hammett would have approved. So would Sam Spade”) but concentrates more heavily on the San Francisco setting as evoked in the novel:

We follow Spade to the Chinatown back alleys, in his battle with
dirty cops, Financial District millionaires who control society – money
talks then as now – and working for the outcast, the fringe of society
while making the wealthy pay. If Spade doesn't know the score, he goes
undercover and finds it, whether from bank security guards, a
restaurant owner in North Beach, a limping dock hand. Because, after
all, as Spade tells the Fat Man in "The Maltese Falcon," "You have to
deal with me now, because this is my town."

And from fog-wrapped Telegraph Hill, to bustling Grant Avenue, up
the cable car lines to Nob Hill, down to the hilly streets of Noe
Valley rooming houses, it is.

Also in the Chron is Edward Guthmann’s profile of Gores, which touches on, among other things, Gores’ efforts to match Hammett’s writing style note for note:

"The novel took four years to write," Gores, 77, says over lunch at
John's Grill, the Ellis Street restaurant where Sam Spade eats lamb
chops, a baked potato and sliced tomatoes in "The Maltese Falcon."

"I had a different style to write in," Gores says over a club
sandwich and an order of well-done fries. "My own style is looser, more
adjectives, more action. And I figured the only way the book would work
would be if I could match Hammett's writing style."

…Although Gores says he took pains to match Hammett's lean, rhythmic
prose, Richard Layman, a Columbia, S.C., author of six books about
Hammett and his work, disagrees.

"I think 'duplicates' the wrong word," Layman says. "The brilliance
of Gores' novel is that he doesn't imitate, he doesn't duplicate. He
somehow manages to understand Hammett's style so fully that he is able
to write in that style."

Which brings me to what I still think is Gores’ masterwork, his 1975 novel HAMMETT. I’d long needed an excuse to read this book and reviewing SPADE AND ARCHER gave me the obvious opportunity to do so. That way, at least for background (because there are space constraints to consider) I could not only compare and contrast FALCON with SPADE AND ARCHER (concluding that the latter comes as close as possible to measuring up to the former, but still falls short) but look at the ways HAMMETT and SPADE AND ARCHER converge and diverge. Ultimately it comes down to this: SPADE AND ARCHER asks the reader to assume there’s more to say about Sam Spade, but it cannot transcend its source material. But HAMMETT asks the reader to assume there’s more to say about Dashiell Hammett, and it turns out there is, quite a bit.

Sure, the Hammett of HAMMETT is still a literary character, not a real person. But because he’s fixed in 1928 San Francisco, when his literary fortunes were on the cusp of taking off and the stock market was about to crash, the reader gains insight into a volatile time and place that, eerily, bears similarities to the present. Gores’ evocation of the setting, while strong in SPADE AND ARCHER, has a richness to it that accentuates prose allowed to breathe just a little bit more. Hammett will investigate “one last case” – the murder of his one-time associate at the Pinkerton Detective Agency – that obviously tips its hat to FALCON, but because Hammett is a working writer, struggling with the words, with marriage and children in abstentia, with manipulating the emotions of a girl clearly sweet on him but lacking critical information about his life, there are larger overtones, greater resonance.

Because it is Gores’ real self evoking his version of a real person, instead of Gores imitating the prose of that real person he so clearly admires, HAMMETT is a great novel, while SPADE AND ARCHER can only be a great pastiche – and strangely enough, Gores seems to foreshadow this eventual conclusion in this now thirty four-year-old novel:

Hammett cursed aloud. He'd treated Crystal as a literary creation rather than as a real person. He had pretended to be the Op, or Sam Spade, instead of being them. He'd become a writer playing at being a manhunter. A typing desk was safer than a street corner. The tiger in his mind had sheathed its claws. He'd become able to risk less. Death had stopped looking over his shoulder. And so he had died.

And yet, even though reissuing HAMMETT to coincide with SPADE AND ARCHER’s publication would have been logical, the book remains out of print. May that not be the case for too much longer.

UPDATE: My LAT review of SPADE AND ARCHER is now live. Here’s the opener: 

Writing a contemporary follow-up to a classic novel is either an act of
bravery or chutzpah — or perhaps both. One must contend with
vociferous readers who consider the classic so sacrosanct they deem any
new work heretical. In the last few months alone, the news of impending
sequels to A.A. Milne's beloved "Winnie-the-Pooh" children's books and
Douglas Adams' science-fiction satire "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the
Galaxy" series provoked a firestorm of criticism summed up by the
sentiment "why mess with a good thing?"

And yet when Knopf

announced that Joe Gores would write a follow-up to Dashiell Hammett’s

“The Maltese Falcon,” a crime novel so hallowed that the National

Endowment for the Arts named it a selection for the Big Read, more

positive reactions ensued, for several possible reasons…

Read on for the rest.