Saturday, September 11, 2010

Sam Spade's Back by guest blogger Steven Head

For people of a certain age, I'm talking gray hairs here, the mention of The Maltese Falcon will bring a half smile. The 1941 film with Humphrey Bogart in the role of Sam Spade, along with Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, and Elisha Cook, Jr., is a classic tale of treasure hunting. This film was John Huston's directorial debut, for the film fans who keep track of such trivia.

Dashell Hammett's Sam Spade only appeared in 3 short stories and the novel of the same name. While there were a number of Bogart films where he portrayed Spade-like characters, Hammett never penned another adventure for this detective. And that is how it has remained until now.

Hammett's sole surviving child, Jo Hammett Marshall, who has resisted attempts to revive the Spade character, agreed to Joe Mores' proposal to write a prequel to The Maltese Falcon, titled Spade and Archer. The title references Spade's detective agency partner who is discovered shot dead, gun still in his pocket, in the early pages of the book and frames of the film. Spade and Archer starts in 1921 when Spade decides to go independent, leaving a national detective agency to set up shop in San Francisco.

In the first segment of the book we meet the young Effie Perrine, the secretary who Spade teaches to handroll cigarettes. We also learn of Spade's romantic involvement with Ida Nolan before going to war in France, only to return and discover she married Miles Archer 3 months after Spade's departure. But there is heat in the embers of that romance. Besides Spade's history, we follow him on a simple case of finding a rich kid with eyes on foreign ports that tumbles into a larger gold heist and a big fish that gets away, leaving dead sailors in his wake. Plus the first of Spade's clashes with the obnoxious Sergeant Dundy and the likable Tom Polhaus from the SFPD.

Fast forward to 1925, Spade's business has flourished and with it his reputation. In this section Spade takes on a couple of clients wanting to know more about the sudden death of a prominent banker, plus a girl friend of Effie's, all entangled with the big fish from section one. The details of the dead banker are revealed but Effie's girl friend meets the mortician.

The final section moves on to 1928 where Spade has taken in Archer as a partner to satisfy a client. This time a young Chinese woman needs Sam's help as she attempts to track down treasure her late father has hidden. During these pages we discover Ida and Sam are still an item, Sergeant Dundy is still a jerk, and Miles Archer is not the kind of man Spade wants as a partner.

In the climactic pages of part 3 Sam arranges a showdown with the elusive big fish that got away, settling more than one score. In the final scene Effie announces a Miss Wonderly wants to see Spade with the observation, "You'll want to see her anyway: she's a knockout." The launching point for the falcon story.

I enjoyed this book, learning of Spade's skill at detection, his network of information peddlers, and a basic moral fabric that allows a little adultery in the tight weft and warp. The most striking aspect of the book is how Mores has captured the language and cadence of Spade. It is easy to imagine Bogart delivering the lines, handrolled cigarette and all.

If the Spade/Bogart character holds interest for you then Spade and Archer might be worth your time and energy.
***Thanks more book to add to my pile!
What am I reading? Last week I dug out a raggedy old copy of King Row. Very old fashioned soap opera like story. I'm well into Olive Kitteridge. This is an awfully powerful book, told in a series on interrelated short stories. Olive is annoying, eccentric, brazen...and ever so honest. But the real star of this book is the writing itself. More next week.
Cry me a river...please! for a number of reasons, I have decided not to attend the booksellers annual trade show in St. Paul this year. There is no changing my mind. Registration is closed. So, today I received an email update on a last minute additions to the lineup. It seems that Garrison Keillor is hosting a cocktail party for all trade show attendees at his Minneapolis bookstore. Now are you crying me a river?!?!?!

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