Joe Gores's new detective thriller gives the compelling back story to a partnership that has left its mark on American film and literature for decades while remaining utterly mysterious. The shadow of that partnership, between iconic private dick Sam Spade and his ill-fated compatriot Miles Archer, is intimately woven into the drama of the book you should read right after you put down Spade & Archer: Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon.
As a review in The New York Times makes abundantly clear, Spade & Archer is not the rightful heir to Hammett's inimitable narrative style. Faced with a momentous task, Gores inevitably stumbles, and if you come to the book expecting a perfectly executed exemplar of the genre you will be disappointed. Where Gores succeeds is in breathing life into a story that has been left at loose ends for more than half a century.
Without revealing too much of either book's plot, the connection between the two detectives is an essential part of both. In Hammett's original, the moral character of the story's climax derives in large part from Sam Spade's unflagging commitment to his partner, who has been the victim of a rather unlikely and nefarious assassin. Spade's loyalty, though, is called into question by the suggestion that he has had an affair with Archer's wife, Iva. Fans of The Maltese Falcon, both the novel and the remarkably faithful film adaptation, have long been forced to accept Spade's moral fortitude as given, and left to wonder at the storm raging beneath his placidly smug surface.
Enter Joe Gores, who takes us back to post WWI-era Seattle. Sam Spade and Miles Archer are old friends from their days at the Continental detective agency, the fictional employer of Hammett's other great detective - the Continental Op. Archer has been hired to bust up the industrial strife raging on the Seattle docks (think On the Waterfront on steroids) and Spade is chasing a man who has turned up mysteriously in a hotel lobby after disappearing years ago. There's something fishy about the trails both detectives are on, something that won't become clear until the story's climax some three hundred pages and seven years later.
In the meantime, Spade relocates to San Francisco and has a series of misadventures with bootleggers, bankers, and buried treasure. The diffuseness of the plot (many stories that branch off from a central line) is part of what distinguishes Spade & Archer from its primogenitor; much of Hammett's work is striking in its dramatic unity. From all this action, we glean two lessons about Sam Spade the man. First, the deep ambivalence that always seemed second nature to Spade came late in life, after he saw an act of such brutal violence against so delicate a creature it shook him to the core. Second, our suspicions about Spade's willingness to, um, covet his partner's wife were well placed. As the story moves fitfully toward a rather implausible conclusion your patience may wear thin, but remember, you're in this for the chance to see through the dense fog behind one of the most compelling tableaux of our century.
The final scene of The Maltese Falcon is a dramatic climax with few peers. For fans of Hammett's work and for those who have never read him, Joe Gores has given us all a treat by bringing the story behind that story to life. Go out, grab them both, and enjoy.
This review was originally published in February 2009, and has been updated for the March 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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