“Spade & Archer”
by Joe Gores (Alfred A. Knopf, 337 pages, $24)
Breathing new life into an iconic character created by a long-dead author is a risky business.
John Gardner pulled it off rather nicely with Ian Fleming’s 007, but Robert Parker’s attempt to resurrect Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe (“Poodle Springs,” 1989) was a disaster.
Now comes veteran mystery writer Joe Gores with “Spade & Archer,” a “prequel” to Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 masterpiece, “The Maltese Falcon.”
A novel of astounding originality, it virtually invented the noir style, setting the stage for every hard-boiled writer and movie director from Chandler and John Houston to today’s James Ellroy and the Coen brothers.
Its protagonist, Sam Spade – disdainful of authority, wisecracking in the face of danger, and impervious to the wiles of conniving women – defined the ideal of the American private eye for all time.
Gores made Hammett, who worked as a Pinkerton detective before taking up writing, the hero of one of his 16 previous detective novels (“Hammett,” 1975.) And Hammett’s daughter, Jo Marshall, gave Gores her approval to give “Spade & Archer” a try.
He has said that he “set out to find out for myself who Sam Spade was when he started out.” And Gores’ publisher boasts: “What we don’t know is how Spade became who he is, until now.”
By that standard, the book doesn’t work, because we still don’t know.
Gores does invent new details about Spade’s past. He tells us that Spade was a sharpshooter in World War I. He tells us how Spade became partners with Miles Archer, who is shot down in the opening pages of “The Maltese Falcon.”
Gores even tells us how Spade began his affair with Archer’s wife, Iva, whom the hero tosses away like a dirty old sock in “The Maltese Falcon.”
But from the very first page of “Spade & Archer,” Sam Spade is the same cool customer we came to know in Hammett’s book, and Gores provides no insight into how he got to be that way.
Perhaps that’s for the best, however. It’s difficult to think of Sam Spade as being anything other than the way Hammett created him. One imagines Spade born wearing a fedora, packing a gat, and greeting the midwife with a wisecrack and a sneer.
Gore’s Spade, like Hammett’s, cracks wise, but in Gore’s hands the dialogue isn’t quite as sharp and clever.
For all its failings, “Spade & Archer” is a quick, often pleasurable read. Gores should be commended for his desire to bring Sam Spade back to life and for making a noble attempt to do the near-impossible.