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Onyx reviews: Spade & Archer by Joe Gores

Spade & Archer opens seven years before Sam Spade's most famous case, the one that features a dingus called the Maltese Falcon. In 1921, Spade has just completed his last job for the Continental agency in Seattle—the famous Flitcraft case—and has relocated to San Francisco to open a private detective agency. He hires Effie Perrine as his receptionist after she impresses him with her resourcefulness, and forms a loose alliance with Sid Wise, the lawyer in the office next door. Taking on a partner isn't in on his radar.

Other familiar characters show up, namely two cops: one friendly (Detective Polhaus) and one antagonistic (Lieutenant Dundy). Dundy is looking for any excuse to yank Spade's license, and suspects him of involvement in any major crime in San Francisco. Even a guy named Nick Charles has a walk-on part.

When Spade bumps into Miles Archer while staking out the Spokane ferry, it's immediately clear that there's no love lost between them. After that brief encounter, Archer fades from the action for much of the novel. In that sense, the book's title is something of a misnomer, unless the Archer in the title is Miles's new wife, Iva, with whom Spade is carrying on an affair. Miles muscled in on Iva while Spade was overseas during the Great War, which tells readers pretty much everything they need to know about him.

Though Spade & Archer reads like it was written almost ninety years ago, the book is a contemporary (and authorized) prequel to perhaps the most famous crime novel ever written, about arguably the most famous private detective—Sam Spade. Joe Gores is both a former private investigator and a student of Dashiell Hammett. He concocts a passable imitation of Hammett's style, especially the third person objective point of view that reveals Spade through his actions but never through his thoughts. Gores notices Spade's tics and gestures, reports his words and his tone, and yet he remains an enigma. His inner motivations can only be guessed at.

Spade only appeared in one Hammett novels and a few short stories and yet he is the archetype for virtually every hard-drinking, smooth-talking, quick-fisted noir gumshoe. Regardless of how Hammett (and, now, Gores) describe the man, it is impossible not to see him as Humphrey Bogart. Gores doesn't pander to readers who are only familiar with Spade through the 1941 film adaptation of The Maltese Falcon, but he doesn't try too hard to distance himself from that movie, either. He even includes a character with a halting speech pattern reminiscent of Sydney Greenstreet's Kasper Gutman.

Given the obvious acrimony between Spade and Archer, how did they end up as partners? That is the question Gores tackles, though he goes about it in a circuitous way. Spade's first case as a self-employed private investigator starts out simply—he's supposed to prevent a restless young man from sneaking aboard a ship bound for the Pacific Islands—but turns into something else when he happens upon a gold heist aboard a passenger ship. Though Spade recovers part of the loot, a significant chunk of gold remains missing, and the criminal behind the theft remains at large.

The book covers three distinct time periods, each with its own investigation, conflict and resolution, but the mysterious mastermind who goes by many names keeps reappearing. He's Spade's white whale.

During this time, Spade investigates murders and robberies and missing persons. Of course, he ends up with a seductive female client reminiscent of Brigid O'Shaughnessy who would lie to him about the time of day.

At first it seems like Gores might be planning to bring in another dingus, the Chest of Bergina, but that proves to be a red herring. Later, the story bogs down briefly with a lot of talk about Chinese politics and Sun Yat Sen, but that is the book's only mild misstep.


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