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Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2009

Stylish Crime

Sam Spade returns

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In 1956, five years before he died following decades of bad health-fostered by even more decades of heavy drinking-Dashiell Hammett told an interviewer, "I stopped writing because I was repeating myself. It is the beginning of the end when you discover you have style."

Taking his view, the beginning of the end must have occurred 22 years earlier, when he published his fifth and last crime novel, The Thin Man. The five novels were produced in an extraordinary burst of creativity from 1929 to 1934 and have proved to be remarkably durable and adaptable. The Maltese Falcon was made into a film three times, The Glass Key twice.

Whether Hammett was right about the deleterious effects of style-and most of his myriad fans would not agree-The Thin Man is not his best novel. But it is one of the two best known, along with The Maltese Falcon, which is his best. And it does have style.

It's a style that crime novelist and Hammett authority Joe Gores has expertly incorporated into Spade & Archer: The Prequel to Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon (Knopf). Gores slots his prequel directly into the original by having Hammett's detective Sam Spade set up his own shop after resigning from the Continental Detective Agency upon finishing the "Flitcraft case"-a case Spade mentions in the early pages of Falcon. There are many such nuggets of connection and homage to Falcon in here.

Archer is, of course, Spade's partner Miles Archer, who early on in Falcon turns up murdered. His title prominence notwithstanding, Archer actually does not figure prominently in the narrative until the last of its three sections, set in 1928, when he and Spade sign their partnership agreement.

Spade may be Archer's partner, but he is hardly his friend. Neither Spade nor his attorney-friend Sid Wise trusts Archer, and with reason.

With Archer's wife, Iva, it's a different story altogether. The love affair Spade has with her, unbeknownst to Archer in Falcon, has its beginnings here, where its nature is more fully explored, if not explained.

In fact, if, as Gores says, the mystery in Falcon is not about the search for the jewel-encrusted bird statuette that drives the plot but about who killed Miles Archer, then it may fairly be conjectured that the mystery about S&A resides not in its plot but in the relationship between Iva and Spade.

The pursuit and passion are entirely on Iva's part; Spade seems a passive, almost reluctant object of her ardor. She is desperately clingy; in Falcon she pathetically accepts that Spade only pretends to love her. This is in stark contrast to his relationship with his loyal secretary, Effie Perine, which in both novels is quite tender-and apparently chaste.

As for the plot, it's a lively one involving an initial search for a rich man's wayward son. This turns into a seven-year investigation that takes on increasingly dangerous subjects: the theft of gold sovereigns from a ship; the suspicious suicide of a banker and the insurance money going to his widow; the laundering of bootleggers' money; Sun Yat-sen's illegitimate daughter; and three mysterious, unseen men. Despite its frantic sound, it careers less absurdly than the twists and turns in the Falcon hunt.

Moreover, the characters' interesting personalities are as appealing as in Falcon, where they are deeper, fuller and more real than in Hammett's other novels. Though a severe individual, Spade is at bottom reasonable, logical and sensible. If that's hard-boiled, then Spade is hard-boiled.

A lot of his persona resides in his name. Spade, Sam Spade-plain, hard, alliterative syllables. He has a sort of brutal courtliness; he is well connected with the authorities and grudgingly respected, except by San Francisco Police Lt. Dundy.

And, as alluded to above, there is the style, one that rests on terrific detail and precision in describing actions and scenes. Any writer can pile on detail, of course, but such particularity combined with the characters' utter, stark freshness produced something unique-perhaps, as Hammett scholar Richard Layman has said, "America's first existential novel." It is another quality Gores has captured.

Spade & Archercloses by picking up the opening scenes of Falcon, including the exact dialogue. Do I detect the possibility of a sequel-even a series-in the offing?