Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Before the Black Bird

On February 14, 2009, the 79th anniversary of the publication of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, San Francisco author Joe Gores (below) came to the “M” Is for Mystery bookshop in San Mateo, California, to discuss and sign his prequel to that iconic novel, Spade & Archer.

Publisher and Hammett expert Vince Emery was on hand to interview Gores, but he also managed to work in a plug for an exciting new book project: Don Herron’s The Dashiell Hammett Tour: Thirtieth Anniversary Guidebook, which is scheduled for publication on March 16. That expanded edition of the book includes a preface by Jo Hammett (a surviving Hammett daughter), as well as an introduction by the late noir great Charles Willeford (Miami Blues).

Gores started the discussion by giving some of the back story on how his new novel came to be, covering a lot of the same ground he did during this videotaped interview I did with him as part of the NEA’s “Big Read” program at the Pleasanton Public Library in 2007 (start at about 1:37 to hear what he has to say about Spade & Archer).

At “M” Is for Mystery, Gores credited Hammett biographer Richard Layman, in particular, with the idea for doing a prequel. It seems Layman had once commented to Gores that Falcon was the great existential novel, since the reader is dropped into the middle of the action, is never allowed to enter into Spade’s head, and is given almost no background on any of the other characters. That motivated Gores to try to explain a few things in his novel, such as how Spade developed into the hard-boiled SOB he was, why he didn’t like guns or his partner, Miles Archer, and how he came to be having an affair with Archer’s wife, Iva.

Early on in Spade & Archer, for instance, we learn that Spade started out in Spokane, Washington, as a Continental operative (yes, the same Continental Detective Agency for which Hammett’s other famous fictional character, the nameless Continental Op, worked). There he went out with Iva (née Ida Nolan) before volunteering to fight in World War I with the Canadian army. Iva apparently tired of waiting for Spade and married Archer instead, leading to the animosity between Archer and Spade and Spade’s willingness to go “back to the well,” as it were.

Gores explained to his audience that the reason he put Spade in Spokane was because Hammett had mentioned that he based the character of Iva on a woman who worked in a bookstore there. Another Easter egg Gores inserted in the book for the Hammett (and Raymond Chandler) cognoscenti is that Spade’s regiment and uniform would have been the same as the real-life regiment and uniform Chandler fought with and wore in World War I.

At one point, Vince Emery (right) talked about the reception for this new novel, noting that it has received starred reviews from all of the trade publications, as well as raves in newspapers such as the San Francisco Chronicle, where local mystery writer Cara Black recently sang its praises.

Gores was pleased to see all the printed reviews, but it seems the most gratifying comment he received for the book came from Jo Hammett, who said that at times she forgot whether Gores or her father had written the prose, so Hammett-like did it read to her.

I had a little time to talk with Joe Gores before the event and he pointed out a dagger lapel pin he was wearing on his sport coat. He said that the pin was a gift from the Hammett family in appreciation of his effort--and that the pin had a special tie-in with the book.

At the event’s end, I joined a long line with the other attendees hoping to pick up a signed copy of Spade & Archer and have a picture taken with its author. I also took the opportunity to present Gores with a little gift of my own: a framed copy of my Spade and Archer photo, taken last year at the Dashiell Hammett Suite in San Francisco’s Hotel Union Square.

Authors both: Joe Gores with Mark Coggins

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was at that event two years ago at M is for Mystery and met Joe Gores and told him and several people in line around me about having recently been on the wrong end of a burglary which I will call "The Purloined Gehrig" involving a rare baseball card and when he signed my copy of the Hammett tribute book he said to grab a sword and take some heads, which I hope he meant metaphorically. I wanted to hook him up with the SF based rock guitarist Joe Gore and perhaps produce a noir soundtrack that bridges both their worlds. Maybe it is not too late.