Here’s my take on this prequel to The Maltese Falcon by Dashiel Hammett
SPADE & ARCHER by Joe Gores
The Maltese Falcon is surely the greatest noir movie ever made, if not the greatest PI flick of all time. And the book is even better, fleshing out some of the movie’s necessarily brief references. They were so good that admirers might find themselves wondering if they were dreaming. Dashiel Hammett knew his subjects, knew their history and their relationships. His audience, however, did not. We could sense it in both the book and the movie, but we could not actually see it. That is, until now. Joe Gores has given us Spade & Archer, the Prequel to The Maltese Falcon. The stuff dreams are made of.
Bad puns aside, this is one fine book. Before beginning, the reader needs to remember that the book of The Maltese Falcon was set in 1928, while the movie was in 1940. Gores’ prequel starts in 1921, with World War 1 veteran Spade back at his old job with Continental Detective Agency, a Continental Op, and dreaming of having his own office. Moving from Seattle to San Francisco he quickly settles in and, soon enough, we meet the faithful Effie Perine and the slick but grumpy lawyer, Sid Wise. Miles Archer is already in the cast, too, and it isn’t long before Sam gets chummy with Miles’ wife, Iva. For fans of the Falcon, the background stories, the tying up of loose ends and filling in the blanks, are almost as much fun as the actual story. And a good story it is, too.
The San Anselmo is just another freighter plying the long Pacific route from California to Australia, until a shipment of gold sovereigns is stolen from her safe. Sam happens to be first on the scene, which makes him suspicious to plodding police sergeant Dundy, promoted by the time of the Falcon to Lieutenant Dundy, and his loyal partner Tom Polhaus. (I dare you not to picture Ward Bond when you see Polhaus on the page.) But wise-cracking Spade won’t be pinned down so easily and he soon knows the master-mind behind the theft: a mysterious man named St. James McPhee, who has conveniently disappeared. And when three guys try to take him down late one night on the waterfront, Spade knows he’s on the right track. Spade, being Spade, escapes danger. Others do not. Whoever McPhee is, he’s a ruthless killer.
McPhee is a slippery character, though, and Spade loses the trail. Years pass, other cases come and go, the firm of Samuel Spade, Esq., prospers. But in the back of his mind Spade knows there is still a killer on the loose, and he’s going to find him.
Those reading Spade & Archer to nitpick and compare it to the original might be able to do so. There will probably be some such. But those who read it wanting fast, hard-boiled fun, will have a much better time. Gores even let’s us know that he has a sense of humor: late in the book Spade uses a pseudonym that will be familiar to all Hammett fans. And the last page is, well, the perfect tie-in to the Falcon.