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.
Gores planned a prequel, not a sequel, so queasy memories of Robert B. Parker’s resuscitation of Raymond Chandler’s unfinished final Philip Marlowe novel, “Poodle Springs,” could fade away. Hammett’s daughter Jo Marshall not only approved of the origin story but approached Gores with the idea (albeit after turning down his original request several years earlier).
Gores is far and away the best candidate to pull off such a risky endeavor. The former PI’s Edgar-nominated debut novel, “A Time of Predators” (1969), displayed a ruthless, sharp voice reminiscent of Hammett, further honed over a sporadic series of novels (including “32 Cadillacs” and “Cons, Scams & Grifts”) featuring the private operatives constituting DKA, or Daniel Kearny Associates. And then there is his masterful historical novel “Hammett” (1975), which imagines the ex-Pinkerton operative and pulp master putting aside rewrites on “Red Harvest” to investigate the murder of a fellow op in San Francisco the year before the crash of 1929 -- and before “The Maltese Falcon” was first published as a five-part serial.
Eighty years later, “Spade & Archer” comes within admirable distance of a utopian prequel that, paraphrasing one of the novel’s villains, gets to take Sam Spade apart and see what makes him tick. We first meet him in Washington state in 1921 as “a man a few years shy of thirty . . . [with] a long bony jaw, a flexible mouth, a jutting chin . . . [and] broad, steeply sloping shoulders.” By the end of the first chapter, we’ll know that Spade was a competitive pistol shot and war hero who thinks “if you need to use a gun you’re doing a lousy job as a detective.” We’ll meet the former Ida Nolan, the bookstore clerk who was Spade’s sweetheart before the Great War, before changing her name to Iva and marrying the man who stuck around, Miles Archer. And the seeds will be sown for the complex relationship between the men and Spade’s decision to quit his agency and go out on his own -- and to the Bay Area.
“Spade & Archer” follows a more episodic structure than “Falcon,” advancing several years at a time in three distinct parts earmarked for cases that shape Spade as a private detective and as a man. Gores does, however, string along the larger story arc of a name-shifting killer driven by greed and a sense of self-preservation. The killer eludes Spade until the novel closes with a dangerous hunt for treasure, and throughout the novel Archer and Iva flit in and out of Spade’s life, in episodes sometimes incidental, often instrumental, but with enough distance to leave the reader to extrapolate intent and motivations.
The net effect is uneven, but never less than entertaining. Part 1 spirits its main case -- the disappearance of a young heir to a banking fortune -- along somewhat lackadaisically as more time is spent, understandably, on Spade setting up his sleuthing shingle in San Francisco and hiring on loyal secretary-in-the-making Effie Perine. Part 2 has Spade mixed up with a beautiful old friend of Effie’s who claims she is being watched, and because Spade’s heart is on the line it proves to be the most successful section. Part 3 installs Spade in the Chinese immigrant underworld, a milieu Gores mined successfully for the narrative arc of “Hammett.” Whether Spade is fighting off attackers or warding off encroachments upon his heart by several lovely women who dot the narrative, he knows full well that "[e]verybody lies . . . you just have to keep chipping away at them until they wear down and finally get so tired that they end up telling you the truth.”
Nestled within this elaborate structure is precise attention to detail. Gores knows “Falcon” forward and backward, carefully dropping in details we wouldn’t know (like Archer’s crass womanizing or Effie’s Greek roots) with those long memorialized in Hammett’s signature novel. Gores’ depiction of late 1920s San Francisco is one of opulence reaching its peak but not knowing it, the Great Depression looming like a nasty surprise for crime-fighters and criminals alike. And Effie, as in “Falcon,” is Spade’s sounding board, voice of reason and unacknowledged equal, a formidable young woman whose true heroic qualities seem to mystify her male creator and reinterpreter.
“Spade & Archer” completes the circle with Effie’s declaration that “there’s a girl wants to see you. Her name’s Wonderly,” bringing in enough of Hammett’s original writing to show that Gores knows this is the real thing, though the 100,000 words preceding can never quite match in voice and power. If anything the exercise begs for greater attention to the out-of-print “Hammett,” a work of art that explores the interplay between detection and literature in ways that “Spade & Archer” cannot.
Weinman blogs about crime and mystery fiction at www.sarahweinman.com. Her Dark Passages column appears monthly at latimes.com/books.