Spade and Archer [2009]

by Joe Gores

There have been a number of recent revivifications of famous crime/trhiller authors for modern consumption. Front Row Daily compiled a special edition of interviews with the new authors late last year. They were all working on sequels, but their comments still seem relevant.

In story/structural terms, writing prequels is a tricky business because you have a very firm end-point for your story in mind. Nothing can contravene the details of the existing text. Whereas, writing a sequel you have an established starting point and can then do what you like, including revelations and twists which re-cast and re-interpret what were thought to be fundamental truths in the earlier work. Either way, there is no way to approach a prequel or a sequel without being affected by your perception of the original material.

The obvious way to read a prequel to The Maltese Falcon is as an inverted mystery, where the answer is known but now the working-out is shown. The mystery, of course, being the character of Sam Spade – his ability to navigate the criminal underworld while deciding on his response to Brigid’s murder of Archer. Ellroy’s review is plastered everywhere

Questions hovered on the last page of The Maltese Falcon. We were not sure how this ruthless, skeptical and occasionally sentimental man developed the mental survival skills and moral stamina to successfully and ambiguously mediate the horrible events of the preceding pages. We wanted to know why–but Hammett never told us.

Now Joe Gores does. And in doing so, he justifies Knopf’s kash-in. He has written a prequel that honors and enhances the legendary volume it enshrines, and seamlessly describes how Sam Spade got to the existential dead-end of the Black Bird.

We now know enough.

As readers, we are left no real alternative but to look for the kind of explanation that Ellroy talks about. The problem with trying to read the prequel this way is that because the “answer” of Spade’s actions is ambivalent and ambiguous, the process leading up to that answer can’t have any really firm answers that aren’t also reductive. The prequel could say, for example, that Spade turns over Brigid because he is actually homosexual, but while this answer is sufficient, it destroys the ambiguity which is central to making Spade an engaging character.

We can then re-phrase Ellroy’s stance as being that really, we just want more of the same, because any real explanation would be too much information. And that would hardly seem to justify the effort of either writing or reading a prequel novel some 80 years later.

The prequel then, can’t rest on the laurels of the original – however you look at the reason for its existence you end up knowing that it must stand alone as well as complement the original.

In structural terms then, what Joe Gore does is write a stand-alone mystery that does not intersect in any way with The Maltese Falcon. He then uses as much of Hammett’s earlier work as possible to populate his tale, including not only lifting the main characters whose continuity is established by The Maltese Falcon, but drafting in characters from the Continental Op stories. By populating his story with Hammett’s characters, but telling his own story, he just about gets away with it.

I found the construction and coincidences to be a little strained and a little tenuous. In particular, the formation of the Spade & Archer partnership made little to no sense to me, which is an awful bother in a novel entitled “Spade and Archer”. The killing-stroke however, was when Spade pretends to be a customs official named “Nick Charles”. I mean – come on!

On the plus side though, if I suppressed Hammett quite firmly, then large parts of the narrative did work for me. I liked the focus on hard-boiled procedure, I liked this version of Spade as a character even if I couldn’t quite reconcile it with Hammett’s, I liked two of the three mysteries which form the sequence of the story. I have some quibles about the finale, but no moreso than most stories with this scope and scale. And I think it conveyed the sense of a corrupt and decadent society with a hard-pressed working class very well.

Wrapping up then – Joe Gores is no Hammett. His plotting is a little tighter, his dialogue a little looser… it’s a decent enough novel, but for me it adds nothing to the original.

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