Thursday, 24 December 2009

Spade & Archer - Joe Gores

I came to this book really expecting not to like it, so much so in fact that several times, it got bumped down my pile of "to be read and reviewed" books. Part of the reason was the bland orange cover that looked cheap and uninspiring to me - I couldn't find any images of this orange coloured book jacket online so I'm wondering if that's just the cover for the proof copies. The second and main reason is the phrase proudly displayed on the front cover -"The prequel to Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon". I have never read The Maltese Falcon and have never had any desire to do so, thinking - for some reason - that it was a war novel. It turns out I was completely wrong and it's a classic detective novel, featuring private detective Sam Spade. The Maltese Falcon was published in 1930 by Dashiell Hammett, who died in 1961, so we'll never know what he would have thought of this prequel, but I have to say I loved it.

We meet Sam Spade - who reminds me a lot of TV detective Columbo - when he's just starting out as a private detective in 1921. The book is split into three parts, each one dealing with a separate case a few years after the previous one, but all of which are linked together by an evil criminal mastermind - Sam's "one that got away" who is out to get Sam as much as Sam is out to get him, so the cat-and-mouse game goes on throughout the years.

The writing effectively transports us back to the shady 1930's underworld of San Francisco and even if (like me) you have never read The Maltese Falcon, you can really get a feel of who Sam Spade is. It works perfectly as a standalone novel, even without the added prestige of being a prequel to the great classic. There seems to be a huge amount of cigarette-rolling, cigar-smoking and "hooking of hips" over the corner of someone's desk, but I can only assume this is an attempt to mimic the tone, language and atmosphere of Dashiell Hamett's writing.

At times, the tone reminded me of a Famous Five novel - for example when they all jump into a boat and follow a map to a mysterious island to dig up treasure ! - but in the 1930s, there were less guns, drugs and technology than today so the criminal masterminds all seem a bit childlike and naive by today's standards.

Even the minor characters, like Sam's secretary Effie Perine, are well developed and have their share of the action. The plot is intricately woven and held more than a few surprises - I didn't see the end coming. The fact that it is so well-written and atmospheric has actually made me want to go on and read The Maltese Falcon, so I hope I'll find that as interesting and well-written as Joe Gores' writing. That in itself must be the best praise I can give to Gores' novel.

star rating : 4.5/5

RRP : £12.99

Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Orion (19 Nov 2009)
ISBN-10: 1409113248
ISBN-13: 978-1409113249

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