Q: Apart from the fact that you're a Dashiell Hammett expert, what was the chief inspiration to write a prequel to his classic novel, The Maltese Falcon?
A: It was a comment the Hammett scholar Rick Layman once said about The Maltese Falcon that first grabbed me: that it 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. So I became fascinated by that idea: who is Spade, where did he come from, why he can essentially say to the fat man, "If you'd stayed away from me you would have been okay, but when you cross me then you have to deal with me now, because this is my town."
The way it came about is that that I'd met Professor Layman who'd written a number of fabulous books on Hammett, and the first really good biography of Hammett, called Shadow Man, (because one of the operatives at Pinkerton's detective agency where Hammett worked said that he was a great shadow man, he could follow anyone anywhere and no one would ever see this lanky man tailing them). Through Rick Layman, I met the family, including Jo Marshall, Hammett's surviving daughter, and in 1999 I wrote her a letter asking if she thought a prequel to The Maltese Falcon would be a good idea. She said no. So my agent, Henry Morrison, told me just to forget about it.
Then in about 2004 the Hammett family was in San Francisco for a literary event and Jo Marshall got me in a corner and asked me if I'd like to write a sequel to The Maltese Falcon and I said no, I'd like to write a prequel, and she said "Oh, I guess I just wanted to see all of those wonderful characters again." And I said "but they're all dead." She said "oh, that's right!" So from there we began.
For my own part, I wanted to find out for myself who Sam Spade was when he started outhow did he become this iconic figure? Every private eye who I've known, including myself, thinks Sam Spade is the ideal detective. Hammett himself said "he's who all private detectives would like to be and in their more egotistical moments, think they are." I have always thought you learn more of the private detective procedures in Hammett's "Op Stories," but Spade is the gold standard. I think of him as the Continental Ops' older brotherthe guy who really knows how to do it.
Q: As you were a private eye at one point in your career, can you say how closely the fictional character Sam Spade comes to a real private eye?
A: He comes very close, and for many things such as stopping in the middle of everything to talk to a theater owner who thinks that his employees are stealing from him, getting $50 bucks from the guy, and then just moving onwe never hear from this guy again. Sam just takes the money and forgets him. That's classic.
I was essentially a repo man and a skip tracer, tracking people down. If somebody disappears he's a "skip" so I'd try to find him. The reason we were more like the Op than Spade is I might be carrying 75 files at one time, working on simultaneous cases. However, just like Spade I never carried a gun. No private eye I know of ever did.
Q: The rhythm of the languagethe poetic yet staccato-like style of dialogueis so well done by Hammett, as well as by you in Spade & Archer. Was it hard to pull off and do you think most people now hear Humphrey Bogart's voice when they read Spade's words?
A: My style is very much for this book, I write in a broader, looser fashion in my other novels, but I was trying to emulate his style in The Maltese Falcon. In fact the greatest compliment I've gotten is that Jo Marshall, his daughter, said that when she was reading Spade & Archer she often forgot I'd written it. At certain moments, she thought she was reading her father's writing.
I'm sure most people do hear Bogart's voice, his delivery in that film. But he sounded quite different in "Beat the Devil" for example. He was smart enough to adopt that particular Hammett style for this movie. But in foreign countries, where he's been dubbed, no one's heard Bogart's voice, which is strange to think about. I will say that the actors in "The Maltese Falcon" are all really great for their parts. You could never find a better Kasper Gutman than Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre is insanely good as Joel Cairo. The one who doesn't fit physically is the secretary, Effie: in the book she's in her early 20s, and in the movie she comes across a bit older. But otherwise everything is perfect.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
Blood at the Root
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