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It’s A Mystery: “Don’t be so sure I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be”

Spade & Archer:
The Prequel to Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon

By Joe Gores
Knopf, 2009
 
Every scholar or scribe who has ever written about Dashiell Hammett agrees that the central moment in The Maltese Falcon, and, indeed, one of the central moments in all of Hammett’s writing, occurs when Sam Spade is becoming involved with Brigid O’Shaughnessy. In this moment, he’s communicating to her his sense of how the world and life go. His way is to tell her a story from his investigative past. The form this story takes is that of a parable – a parable about a man named Flitcraft:

 

Flitcraft was a successful, happily married, stable and utterly respectable real-estate dealer in Tacoma. One day he went out to lunch and never returned. No reason could be found for his disappearance, and no account of it could be made. ‘He went like that,’ Spade said, ‘like a fist when you open your hand.’

Well that was in 1922. In 1927 I was with one of the big detective agencies in Seattle. Mrs. Flitcraft came in and said somebody had seen a man in Spokane who looked a lot like her husband. I went over there. It was Flitcraft all right…

Here’s what had happened to him. Going to lunch he passed an office-building that was being put up—just the skeleton. A beam or something fell eight or ten stories down and smacked the sidewalk alongside him. It brushed pretty close to him, but didn’t touch him, though a piece of the sidewalk was chipped off and flew up and hit his cheek. It only took a piece of skin off, but he still had the scar when I saw him…He was scared stiff of course, he said, but he was more shocked than really frightened. He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.

He went to Seattle that afternoon…For a couple of years he wandered around and then drifted back to the Northwest, and settled in Spokane and got married. He wasn’t sorry for what he’d done. It seemed reasonable enough to him. I don’t think he even knew he had settled back naturally into the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma. But that’s the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.

The idea behind Spade & Archer, Joe Gores’ prequel to The Maltese Falcon, is to show us what Sam Spade was up to before he encountered a black bird and got mixed up with its nefarious “customers”. He is working in the Seattle office of the Continental Detective Agency (modeled on the Pinkerton Agency where Hammett once worked). He’s on the Flitcraft case. And, as only Sam Spade can do, he finds him. (“I went over there,” is Spade understatement.) Flitcraft now goes by the name of Charles Pierce and their meeting is more gemütlich than confrontational. Over a bottle of Johnnie Walker, Pierce tells the story of the falling beam and ends by saying, “I was doing everything right, and none of it meant a damned thing if a beam could fall off a building and kill me.” Spade rolls a cigarette, lights it and looks through the drifting smoke with candid eyes, says “As if someone had taken the lid off life and let you see how it really worked.” It is Flitcraft/Pierce’s best moment since fleeing. “You do get it!” he exclaims.

Dashiell Hammett

  By opening Spade & Archer with the Flitcraft case, Gores shows us why the story is so important here and in Falcon. It is this vision of an implacably random universe which informs Hammett’s work. As Robert Parker said, “It is Spade’s motive spring.” In his uniquely capable fashion, Sam wraps up the Flitcraft case to everyone’s satisfaction, even the first Mrs. Flitcraft. She doesn’t “get it” but she doesn’t care. Then, without preamble, Sam quits Continental and takes off for San Francisco to open his own office. This can only be described as Flitcraftian! As Gores puts it, “Gone like your lap when you stand up.”
 
It’s a piece of dialogue that shows why Spade & Archer is such a delightful read. Gores creates a wonderfully convincing backstory for Spade, and sounds more like Hammett than, well, Hammett. From the crisp dialogue to the meticulous description of what a PI does, to the affectionate evocation of Prohibition-era San Francisco, Gores got it down in spades. He’s also right on the money when it comes to Hammett’s characters. Not only Spade the savvy cynic cum idealist, but a very young Effie Perine.

 
We meet her on the day she applies for the job of Sam’s secretary which she gets almost instantly. Hint: She expertly rolls a cigarette. As for Miles Archer we learn why he more than earns the “son of a bitch” label Sam gives him in Falcon.

The plot is quintessential Hammett with its twists and turns. The novel is really three novellas united by an arch villain and the city by the Bay. It might be dubbed Three Tales of one City, 1921, 1925, 1928. The first part, 1921, begins with the Flitcraft case, Spade’s last with Continental. (Technically, in Falcon Spade dates the Flitcraft case to 1922. Gores changes the date to 1921 without giving us a clue as to why. My compulsion about accuracy aside, in the final analysis the change is really not important.) Spade’s first case on his own involves a gold heist from a large passenger ship, the San Anselmo, wherein we meet the arch villain for the first time. (Hammett had a similar gold heist in his Pinkerton past). On to 1925, and we have Effie’s best friend Penny being followed by a Turk who thinks she has a way to find the chest of Bergina.

Spade’s on the Turk’s case, and Penny’s, but the key here is that chest. It’s a gold-bound metal box made by Greek artisans for Bergina, the sister of Alexander the Great. Its contents remain a mystery. (Ever heard of a gold and jewel encrusted black bird?) In 1928, Miles shows his true colors, there’s an elaborate union scam on the docks, a caper that involves Mai-Lin Choi (the illegitimate daughter of Sun Yat-Sen) and her mentor The Reverend Sabbath Zhu Pomeroy. And the arch villain gets caught. There is a fine, funny scene in Chinatown where the players all sound like the menu: Ray Chong Fat, Chin Doo-Yik, Ng Chee, Woo Fong, etc. you get the idea. And the ending is a honey. You couldn’t ask for anything more.

Joe Gores

 
Part of the joy of this novel is the “insider” Hammett touches. When Spade goes back to see his old cronies at Continental, they have an exchange about the notorious Fatty Arbuckle case then very much in the news. “The jury‘ll set Arbuckle free,” Spade says confidently. Just so happens Hammett, as a Pinkerton operative was actually assigned to help the defense on the Arbuckle case. Later on, Spade uses the alias Nick Charles. To put too fine a point on it, there are, of course, more.

With Spade & Archer Joe Gores enhances his well deserved reputation as one of our finest crime novelists. When it comes to zingers that fit the Hammett style, Gores owns them as in the line he gives to Sam: “I can rake my own chestnuts out of the fire.” Joe, you are peerless!

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Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.

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