Monday, August 10, 2009

Spade and Archer

When I was a kid, I wanted to be Sam Spade. Not Humphrey Bogart, although my first exposure to Hammett's character might have been through Huston's film adaptation of The Maltese Falcon. I don't remember, and it doesn't matter. I found Hammett's book soon enough, and for a miserable 14 or 15 year old kid who needed every ounce of willpower just to get out of bed and go to fucking high school every morning, it was a revelation. Every teenage kid wants to be someone else, to be something more than the confused loser he is. That's why there are still comic book stores and action movies are packed with guys in backwards baseballl caps dragging their less than enthralled dates in tow, every summer weekend. I collected comics. I had big stacks of The Amazing Spiderman and Wolverine, but once I cracked The Maltese Falcon, all those entertainments seemed inadequate.

Sam Spade wasn't some costumed hero, able to overcome because he could stick to walls or had conveniently placed claws. He was a grown man, a man with a job, a man who operated in an environment shaded with gray. There were no clear bright lines dividing good from evil. No saints. Just sinners or varying degrees, and Sam Spade caught in the middle, trying to claw his way out of a bad situation and maybe make a little money on the side, and, oh yeah, get a little justice while he was at it. He played for keeps. He had to. He didn't take any shit, and he kept his cards close to his vest. He was in control of his emotions, and he was always in control of his emotions. No one played Sam Spade for a fool. Now, I knew, no matter how badly I wanted them, I would never be a superhero, but Sam Spade wasn't a superhero. He was a guy. A guy who liked to drink. A guy who had bills to pay. A guy who wasn't immune to the charms of women, but didn't let them wrap him around their little fingers. And most importantly, he wasn't the sort of guy to lose his head and get all emotional. While everyone around him loses their head chasing after smoke, Spade keeps it all together, and when it comes down to it, he doesn't let sentimentality or emotion get in the way. He does what has to be done, even though it probably hurts him more than he will ever admit.

Brigid goes to prison, and Gutman and Cairo go back off on their wild goose chase. The worthless bird only making them more fanatical in their desire. It never occurs to them that it's all a lie, but Spade never gets sucked in. He never becomes a believer. It is the believers who run amok, taking lives, doing damage. The Maltese Falcon, isn't a detective novel. It's a religious one, and Spade is the only person who stands above the fray, never believing the unbelievable and still hanging on to some sense of right and wrong.

This preface is a long way of saying that, when I heard Joe Gores was writing a prequel to
The Maltese Falcon, I thought it was a shitty idea. The Maltese Falcon stands alone. There's no need to explain Spade. He's there at the beginning of the story, and he's there at the end. What happened before and what happens after are irrelevant. In fact, the entire idea of prequel trivializes Hammett's greatest creation. Don't get me wrong, Joe Gores is a great writer. Interface is the closest thing there's been to a Hammett novel since The Thin Man. Hell, it's a better Hammett novel than The Thin Man. Still, I wanted to hate Spade and Archer. I wanted get ten pages in and throw the goddamn book against the wall. That didn't happen. Gores is too good for that. S & A is not The Maltese Falcon. It's a lot more puply than the pulp fiction on which it is based, but it is compulsively readable. Gores is an excellent storyteller, and it's almost impossible not to get sucked into his story, even if part of you wishes it didn't exist. He's that good. Still, now that I've finished Spade and Archer, I'm going to forget I ever read it, and I'm never going to to look at it again. I prefer the Spade I met all those many years ago. Sorry Joe.

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