Joe Gores. Spade & Archer: The Prequel to Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (2009) 337 pp.
This novel begins with private investigator Sam Spade wrapping up the Flitcraft case in the Pacific Northwest and ends with a beautiful girl named Wonderly being shooed in to Spade’s San Francisco office. In the middle, the narrative spans the years 1921 to 1928 and tells three separate— but interconnected—episodes in Spade’s career. In 1921, Spade has resigned from his position as an operative of the Continental Detective Agency and is setting up a one-man shop in San Francisco. The first thing he does is hire a young Greek girl named Effie Perine to be his secretary. Hired by the wealthy Charles Hendrickson Barber—president of Golden Gate Trust—to find his son, who has romantic ideas about sailing the South Seas, Spade starts his search on the docks, looking for ships getting ready to sail for Hawaii that young Barber could stow away on. He quickly stumbles upon a case of stolen gold sovereigns that have gone missing from the San Anselmo. He is able to recover the missing boy and part of the missing gold, but in so doing he makes an enemy of Lt. Dundy of the San Francisco Homicide Detail as the mastermind behind the theft—a shadow man named St. Clair McPhee —escapes. In 1925, Spade is hired by an insurance man to investigate the death of Collin Eberhard (another banker), whose mysterious death has been ruled accidental by the coroner ’s jury. But, before the insurance company pays off the widow, they want to be absolutely certain that Eberhard did not, in fact, commit suicide. The case brings him into contact with another shady character named Devlin St. James and ends with a tragic death. In 1928, Spade is offered a job investigating a series of thefts on the waterfront. Needing a partner who is not already known by all of the local longshoremen, he offers a partnership to Miles Archer, an operative with the Burns Agency that Spade has known for many years. Archer, who married the girl that Spade left behind when he went off to fight in World War I, is a son of a bitch, always trying to claim “booze, bribes, and biddies” as expenses —but he’s also a very good private eye. While Archer is working nights undercover on the docks, Spade and Miles’ wife, Iva, are doing some nighttime undercover work of their own. Another case, involving a beautiful young Chinese “paper daughter” named Mai-lin Choi searching for the truth about her father, brings Spade full circle in the San Anselmo case as he finally gets his man. A worthy predecessor to Mr. Hammett’s iconic tale of the Black Bird.
Setting: San Francisco (1921-1928)