Sam Spade, the rugged and opaque hero of The Maltese Falcon, would never stoop to offering words of psychologically acute sympathy to a witness. But so he does in this pastiche of Dashiell Hammett’s landmark novel, remarking to a freshly minted widow that she might be “looking for a connection to whatever it was he [her late husband] withheld from you when he was alive.” The widow chides Spade, quite rightly, for his “Freudian analysis.”
The publisher of this volume, Knopf (which also published The Maltese Falcon, in 1929), labels this book a “prequel” to the original work—an unfortunate term that suggests a dose of something that might put you to sleep. In fact, Gores has hammered out a thrill-rich tale that will engage any reader who admires pulp writing in the Black Mask tradition. He also provides a shrewdly researched tour of San Francisco in its fog-wrapped yesteryear, and gives fans of the source book plenty of opportunities to enjoy a frisson of recognition. (“Shoo her in, darling,” Spade says at one point to Effie Perine, his trusty Girl Friday, thereby echoing the first scene in Falcon.) But a pastiche, done well or done badly, always raises the question of whether it should be done at all. One false move, and an aura of contrivance—speaking of fog!—drifts across the whole thing.
Gores, following the model of many novels from the pulp-magazine era, employs a narrative approach that loosely links a sequence of otherwise distinct tales. (Interestingly, although The Maltese Falcon appeared initially as a Black Mask serial, Hammett wrote it so that it bodies forth as a single, cohesive saga. His earlier long tales, Red Harvest and The Dain Curse, do have the kind of episodic structure to which Gores pays homage here.) The first of three parts, set in 1921, echoes an actual case on which Hammett worked during his years as a Pinkerton detective. It concerns the theft of $125,000 in gold from a freighter docked along the Embarcadero. The second part, set in 1925 (and featuring that shrewd, merry widow who observes a crack in Spade’s hard-boiled façade), involves the murder of a banker at a beach club located near the Hyde Street Pier. The final part, set in 1928, deals with a quest for lost treasure—a cache of loot raised back in 1910 to support Sun Yat-sen’s revolt in China. The action concludes on the very day that the action in Falcon begins. Instead of setting the stage for a masterpiece, though, that little conceit brings a bit of a letdown. Like that quasi-Freudian line of dialogue, it breaks the spell that Gores seeks to cast.
Flitting through the entire story, meanwhile, is Miles Archer, the slightly dim gumshoe who figures briefly but critically in the original Hammett novel. He no more deserves to share billing in this book’s title than he does in Spade’s firm.